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Ruth St. Denis (Fall 2012)

         Ruth St. Denis (January 20, 1879 – July 21, 1968) was one of the mothers of modern dances and a cofounder of the Denishawn School of Dance. She was known for inventing a new form of modern dance mixed with eastern ideas.

    St. Denis was born with the name Ruth Denis in New Jersey. Her father was a machinist whose career and income were never stable. Her mother, who had a medical degree and a nonconformist spirit, would rigorously train St. Denis in physical exercises developed by François Delsarte. These exercises, based on Delsarte’s observation of human interactions, were designed to connect the inner emotions to physical gestures and movements. It was these exercises that had sparked St. Ruth’s interest in mysticism and inspired her to use dance as a way to express her inner emotions and spiritual truths (she believes in Christian Science). 

    According to St. Denis, American popular dances at the time only consisted of dull movements such as cartwheels, splits and kicks that any dancers could perform; they had little to do with aesthetics or poetry or philosophy. In 1894, after 15 years of training and developing her own dance style, she began her career as a skirt dancer under the name of “The Only Ruth.” Her stage name was later changed to “St. Denis” when she had the opportunity to join the famous producer and director, David Belasco, as one of the dancers in his musical theater.

    In 1904, when St. Denis saw a cigarette advertisement that depicted the Egyptian goddess Isis, she realized that her destiny was not just to become a public entertainer; she wanted to become something more. It was this Egyptian goddess image that had deeply inspired her to incorporate Oriental ideas into dancing. But after watching “Streets of Delhi,” at Luna Park, New York, she had redirected her interest to Indian dancing. “Streets of Delhi” was an attempt to imitate Lord Curzon’s Coronation that was held at Delhi in January 1903. The presence of elephants, chariots, dancing girls, soldiers and even real Eastern people made it as if the visitors were in an actual Indian city. Since then, St. Denis was intrigued to learn more about Indian culture and dances. In 1905, she decided to leave Belasco’s company and branched off as a solo artist. 


    Inspired by “Streets of Delhi,” St. Denis choreographed “Radha,” which was meant to be performed before the Hindu goddess Radha originally, but St. Denis later decided that she would perform as Radha herself. This first masterpiece of hers, based on her own knowledge of Indian culture and mythology, depicted the story of the Hindu god Krishna who fell in love with a mortal named Radha, and was debuted in 1906 at Hudson Theater, New York. 

    From many of the critics’ eyes, her performance was said to be overly sexual and exotic than what her story was intended to be. But it would not be St. Denis’ style if in any other way; she intended her dance to be a combination of spiritual and seductive movements. One can tell from the way she showed her bare feet and exposed her cleavage in her traditional Indian dress when she danced; her intention behind that was to display the symbolic of the five human senses through her movement. In her own words, "I have always tried to 'dance' . . . things that ordinarily are spoken or written, or preached or lived. The eternal quest for truth, the ecstasy of an instant's communication with a divine being, the harmony of rituals, beautifully performed, was the story of my art and my religious life." No matter how inaccurate of the cultural representation of her dance might be, St. Denis had achieved her goal of expressing the liberation of the human body through her dance.


    Her initial performances of “Radha”, along with three additional dances, had impressed many people. Everyone in town was talking about “Radha.”. Denis’ success convinced her to travel to Europe because it had proved to be a place where dance is much more appreciated than in America. She started in England since she was invited to dance in front of King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and the upper society of London, then she eventually toured other European countries. The successes from her European tour, and all the critiques that came with it, had refined her techniques and motivated her to move back to America to tour across the country.


    St. Denis was in need of a male dancer who could help her in ballroom dancing for her Southern tour, thus she held an audition, in which Ted Shawn, who later became her partner and husband, had won the part. The two were married in 1914 and soon joined forces to choreograph dances that featured them together and individually. Their first tour together, also their first honeymoon, started from New York and all the way to California. During this tour, they were known as the “St. Denis-Shawn Company,” but was later named “The Denishawn Company.” By the end of their second tour, both had in mind of opening a dance school. St. Denis had given thoughts about it before, but never as seriously as Shawn, who had richer experience on teaching others how to dance. Thus, Shawn became the driving force of their new school in Los Angelos, California. He took care of the scheduling, dance lessons, the school culture, and all other essentials, while St. Denis was to add only the Oriental concept to it. They would also invite experienced dancers of different styles from their own, including Japanese sword dances, basic Japanese dances, and Hawaiian hula. This “lack of system,” as Shawn had put it, marked the vision of the Denishawn School, as they both believed that the concept of dancing can be and should be consisted of many different dancing styles, in order to fully express oneself, particularly for spiritual or emotional reasons.

    They would temporarily close down the school during the winter seasons, a period in which they could focus on performing on stage again. The Denishawn Dancers performed in various locations from vaudeville theaters to concerts, often receiving harsh critics due to their lack of original music composition to support their own choreography. Nevertheless, Shawn had worked very hard and improved a great deal in this area after several years. Their school also grew in size. Some of their famous pupils included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Louise Brooks. 

    Shawn was enlisted into the United States Army during World War I. He came back to St. Denis afterward and soon felt the need to branch off as a solo artist himself with a different direction than the Denishawn Company, but not before touring the Far East with the Denishawn dancers from 1925 to 1926.

The Orient

    The Denishawn Company was invited to Japan, China, Burma, India and a few other Asian countries to present their best work, ranging from St. Denis’ oriental dances to Shawn’s western dances, which include his famous “Adonis” piece. Almost all of their performances were sold-out. 

The Breakup

    Then the inevitable happened. In the 1920s, some of their best pupils’ decided to leave Denishawn and launch their own dance career. Denishawn’s reputation had also gone downhill when the American public felt that their style was overly exotic and sexual and something they were not used to seeing before. St. Denis and Shawn also split up and went their own direction, although they never divorced because Shawn intended to save his reputation by hiding his homosexuality. In 1930, Shawn bought a piece of land in Massachusetts and called it “Jacob’s Pillow,” where he recruited young male dancers and entertained for wealthy women living nearby. His career turned out for better when he and his all-male dancers performed in various countries such as Canada, Cuba and England; Shawn wanted to send a message that males should be acknowledged just as much as females in the world of dancing. On the other hand, St. Denis still supported Shawn and continued dancing, now independently, with various artists. Guided by her spiritual beliefs; one of her famous pieces was playing the role of Madonna. In the 1930s, St. Denis was invited by the president of Adelphi University to lead their dance program.

History Forces

    Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn have a significant history forces on “arts and new ideas” and “personal identities.” By creating the Denishawn School and Company, Ruth St. Denis and Shawn changed the American way of thinking toward dancing. St. Denis’ various Oriental dancing styles and Shawn’s contemporary Western styles have taken a huge step away from the old way of dancing, which mostly consists of restricted, dull, and sometimes even comedic movements. The Denishawn Company, though collapsed at the end, has played an important role in the world of modern dancing. Not only had they produced famous dancers such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, they will also be responsible for the next generations of dancing to come. Last but not least, another history force by Ruth St. Denis and the Denishawn School and Company is influencing the changes in gender roles. Ted Shawn, prior to and after leaving Denishawn, had shown the world that males can dance just as aesthetically as females and should not be neglected in the world of dancing. One can tell just by watching any of his performances, that he put so much effort and new ideas into dancing, and that he had shown no shame at all when he sometimes danced with little or no clothing, especially his “Adonis” piece and when he and his all-male dancers often performed half-naked on stage. St. Denis and Shawn are both equally important in lifting up the Denishawn School and Company; they could not have reached successes without each other’s help. It is unfortunate that the economy, namely the Great Depression period, had a negative impact on Denishawn’s financial health. Nevertheless, they have created history and taught us that one should feel liberated to express their emotions, spiritual feeling, or sensuality through dancing. 


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