The Curious Tale of Denishawn

25 July 2011

Or how two people managed to continuously take their clothes off in public throughout the 1920s and get away with it.

In 1915 a pair of newlyweds formed a company that was to become instrumental in the formation of modern dance as a genre. This odd pairing was to become infamous for performing in as little clothing as possible as much for their revolutionary dance styles. Quite a trick in the early part of the twentieth century.

To our own twenty first century eyes, of course, pictures like this seem fairly tame but at the time they were quite outrageous. Society was still in the process of unburdening itself of the shackles of Victorian morality and this combination of bare flesh and sensuality would have been seen in many quarters as more than outrageous. In fact, were it not for their ingenuity the couple may well have seen themselves in court on charges of promoting pornography. Who were they and how did they get away with it?

The sensuality of this 1915 shot of Ruth St Denis, almost one hundred years old, is still something that can be described as simply erotic. Her head flung back in abandon, her clothes dripping wet, this foreshadows the glamour photography of the fifties. However risqué it may not have seemed in the time of Monroe, during the First World War this was as explicit as photography could get without being illegal. St Denis was born in 1879 and the inspiration for her exotic dances came about, so legend has it, when she saw a picture of the Egyptian goddess Isis on a cigarette ad. This eureka moment would lead to a lifetime of progressive work in the field of dance. However, she would need a partner to get things done.

Enter Ted Shawn, pictured above in 1917. To say that he was an exhibitionist would be something of an understatement and throughout his professional career he would grasp any possible opportunity to get his kit off. Born Edwin Myers Shawn in Kansas City in 1891 his original life plan was, ironically considering his future career, to become a minister. From a man of the cloth to a man without in a single bound, it was illness that led Shawn to his own revelatory moment and his discovery of dance as his life long passion. While at the University of Denver he suffered from diphtheria which at the time killed up to fifteen thousand people a year in the USA. To help rebuild his muscles after his long illness he took to dance. And never really looked back.

They married in 1914 and not long after that they opened their dance school, Denishawn, in Los Angeles. It was here that they would rehearse and choreograph many of the Vaudeville pieces that would make them famous and enable them to tour the United States with their own particular form of dance. There was a problem with the marriage from day one. Shawn was a gay man. During this period of history it was not uncommon at all for gay men to marry, in fact it was the norm. They would commonly hide their sexuality from their spouse or, in this particular case, use their union as a form of artistic marriage and to express themselves through dance. It takes two, sometimes, but the marriage was not always a happy one.

The Denishawn Company ran for seventeen years and during this time toured extensively across the United States, the pair becoming rightly famous. The titles of their performances speak volumes for the eroticism and sensuality that was an integral part of their work. Were it not for this element of foreignness, their routines would likely have been banned. Les Mysteres Dionysiaques, Xochitl and Julnar of the Sea are three of the names of their interpretive dance movements which Shawn choreographed. It was, however, his interest in male dance that would eventually see the end of Denishawn. His summer school session became somewhat well known within the finger on lip gay circles of the time.


Every movement needs a name for its art and that of Denishawn was no exception. It was called the Principle of Music Visualization and without these pioneers modern dance as we know it would probably not exist. Music Visualization is a concept that to us (so used to it) seems as old as the hills, but what St Denis and Shawn established was the concept that required dances to make equivalent moves to the structural shape of music itself. In 1916 and 1917 Shawn developed these techniques in the training rooms of the Denishawn schools. Soon after that St Denis showed these techniques to the public – baffled at first but soon appreciative.

As well as being famous and notable performers in their own rights, St Denis and Shawn would also help to produce some of the stalwarts of American modern dance of the next generations. Martha Graham was a student, who would go on to be called the Dancer of the Century by Time magazine in 1988. She was the first dancer to perform at the White House, the first to travel abroad as a cultural ambassador for the USA and indeed the first ever to receive the Medal of Freedom. Below you can see her and Ted looking good on the dancefloor.

Doris Humphrey, whose choreographic creations are still widely performed today, was also a Denishawn pupil. There was also Charles Weidman whose vision of a uniquely American form of modern dance was further developed by his own students, Jack Cole and Jose Limon. Cole's own student and disciple Bob Fosse, the famously innovative dancer and choreographer, would go on to win an Academy Award for his direction of Cabaret. Although they had no children of their own the dance lineage of St Denis and Shawn is simply astounding, with most modern dance greats having a direct debt of thanks to their pioneering work.

The Denishawn experiment came to an end in 1933. Its demise can be attributed as much to problems in their marriage as to the collapse of the world economy at the time. Both of them were destined to thrive on their own, however. Ruth St Denis founded the dance program at Adelphi University in 1938. This was one of the very few dance departments at American universities at the time and in itself was considered a progressive and liberal move. It remains today a cornerstone of the Adelphi’s Department of Performing Arts. She was still an innovator in bringing new arts to America in the nineteen sixties. In 1963 she brought the first full length (eight hours of it!) Balinese Shadow Puppet Play to the US.

Her once husband went on to form Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. Shawn wanted to increase the awareness in the US of the importance of male dancers and it was with this group that Shawn pushed the boundaries of single sex dance to, some would argue, extremes. It could be argued that his choreography was simply a huge excuse to get naked or near naked men on to the stage but it cannot be argued that his productions were anything but way ahead of their time. Ponca Indian Dance and Sinhalese Devil Dance were two of the many productions he managed to stage during this period. He finally found happiness, too, with one of his dancers, Barton Mumaw, a relationship which lasted seventeen years.

Alongside his new dance company, Shawn created Jacob’s Pillow which was a combination of a dance school with theater and a retreat. The small scale beginnings soon became a yearly festival which continues to this day. It is renowned a place where anyone can come and perform without bias and restriction which was a freedom that Shawn enjoyed (at times) and wanted to share with others.

His last performance saw him reunited at Jacob’s Pillow with his once wife and partner, Ruth Saint Denis. Performed in the Theater named after him, Siddhas of the Upper Air saw the pair come back together on the boards for the first time in many years. After all the years and all the differences, they danced together on their fiftieth anniversary in a special performance in New York. St Denis passed away in 1968 and Shawn followed her to the great dance stage in the sky four years later. Although few have heard of them now, their contribution to modern dance is such that dance as we know it would not have come in to existence without them. For that, as they dance away in to infinity, we owe them our thanks.



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