Vaudeville produced every kind of dancer from the Classical exoticism of Isadora Duncan to the waltz clogging of Pat Rooney to the bouncy tapping of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. One school of dance that was popular in the 1910s and 1920s was the idea of bringing interpretation to dance and particularly to ballet. Anna Pavlova had popularized ballet through her touring companies and dance troupes that sprung up around the country to bring this or that philosophy or interpretation of dance to America. One didn’t simply move about in a traditional manner but one taught dance theory. Marion Morgan, live-in partner of pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner, was one such practitioner and these troupes often freed the body from excessive clothing, following the great Isadora Duncan, and not coincidentally helped to insure bookings where sex could be presented as art (Arzner’s film Dance, Girl, Dance is a good way to understand the controversy).
Ruth St. Denis stepped full force into this emerging dance world which required a certain measure of pretension, thus causing her to reject the fact that she was really farm girl Ruth Denis from New Jersey. The changing of her last name to St. Denis added the required panache. She was a follower of Francois Delsarte who was basically a method acting coach who believed that within us we could find a range of emotions and attitudes which we could bring out from deep within us as we felt our motivations and identified with them. Konstantin Stanislavski would later become even more famous for getting at our inner feelings and motivations. St. Denis sought to apply these ideas to movement and to develop her own spin-off school of dance which she hoped would take off with the same popularity of Delsarte’s approach. The adaptation was not difficult to create since Delsarte himself had been a music teacher.
In 1911 dancer Ted Shawn saw her perform, identified with her approach and fell in love with her. As husband and wife they created their own organization called, appropriately, Denishawn wherein the ideas of Delsarte, cultural inspirations such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and in particular the goddess Isis, a heavy dose of mysticism (now extended to India and China) and a range of basic postures and physical conditioning. Many young wannabe dancers flocked to the 1915 Los Angeles Denishawn and, barefoot, attempted to get in touch with their roots. Among the famous pupils (and there were many) was Martha Graham who founded her own dance company which itself generated many great dancers and dancing teachers, among them the great muscle dancer Archie Savage who went on to teach and even attempt to choreograph Elizabeth Taylor as an Egyptian dancer in the 1963 movie Cleopatra. He described his task in that film as “lucrative but practically impossible.”
Ruth St. Denis’ school had closed by 1930 but she continued to dance and established, at Adelphi University, one of the first dance programs at a major university and the program continues with great prestige today. She continued to explore the importance of music and set design to enhance the mystical experience for the viewer. The dancer was for St. Denis a mystical priestess and her eastern influences, although only vaguely understood and semi-scholarly, were brought in to create an inspiration for the dancer as an expressive poet of beauty. Later she would compare the dancer to the Virgin Mary, taking sacred inspiration and attempting to transform it into something primordial and spiritually moving. A performance was not just a performance but an invitation to an awakening of the body and the soul.
A certain measure of Ruth St. Denis was ego and show business hiding behind an exotic front but she was also a powerful motivating force and an inspiration to a whole range of important international dancers and teachers. Her interpretive approach to dance helped others to seek out new directions, theories and results and to break dancing out of its classical phase into an exotic and psychological new world.
To see rare footage of Ruth St. Denis dancing in the 1930s, exhibiting her dance interpretations of eastern culture and art and framed with appropriate set design, see:
The University of Arizona possesses a number of portrait photos of Ruth St. Denis as well as a rare program from one of her tours.
- RUTH ST. DENIS was known as “The Oriental Danse Artiste” and partnered between 1915 and 1930 with her former pupil and soon husband TED SHAWN to found Denishawn in Los Angeles, designed to be a “cradle of modern dance” where their pupils included Martha Graham. The rare souvenir program in our collection dates from 1916 and features “a company of American dancers and native Hindu assistants” presenting “Oriental, Classic and Modern Danse Divertissements including a novel presentation of the Samoan and Hawaiian Dances as performed at the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
The Indian Nauche Dance of Ruth St. Denis, in color: