Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

The parents of modern dance

Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) and Ted Shawn (1891–1972) were both invaluable pioneers in modern dance, approaching movement as a spiritual outlet and legitimate profession for men and women. Their training school and performance group, Denishawn, gave birth to several new innovators of modern dance, and Shawn’s Massachusetts retreat for his male dancers, Jacob’s Pillow, has evolved into a renowned dance festival.

Ruth Dennis, born in New Jersey, was introduced to the movement principles of François Delsarte by her mother and began her performing career as a vaudeville dancer. She was inspired to create one of her earliest pieces after encountering a poster advertisement for Egyptian Deities cigarettes, depicting the goddess Isis enthroned in a temple.

Edwin Myers Shawn, from Kansas City, Missouri, planned on becoming a minister—until diphtheria left him with temporary paralysis, cured by dance as physical therapy. Shawn’s new fascination with dance led him to establish a touring ballroom-dance company. He first met the newly christened St. Denis in 1914. Within a year, they had married and forged a professional partnership. The Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts was founded in 1915, in Los Angeles, California; Denishawn Dancers was the name of their touring company.

St. Denis and Shawn split professionally and as a couple in 1930, though they never divorced and remained in touch. St. Denis continued her obsession with the Orient in her choreography (largely inaccurately, in keeping with popular fascination of the culture). Shawn bought a plot of Massachusetts land in 1930, Jacob’s Pillow, and transformed it into an arts colony. He sought to validate dance as a masculine form with his touring company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.

Fun Facts:

• Young Ruth Dennis was, as she used to say, “canonized” Ruth St. Denis by enterprising stage director David Belasco during her early vaudeville touring.

• Each member of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, which functioned as a living collective, received year-round housing, medical and dental care, food and clothes.

Click to enlarge:

Photos clockwise from top: by Franklin Price Knott; by Notman; by Witzel; all courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Archives

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