“I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words.”
Ruth St. Denis, along with her contemporary Isadora Duncan, is credited with founding the American dance movement, especially American modern dance. She was the first American dancer to appear in a full-length dance performance. Additionally, St. Denis was a pioneer in American sacred dance when she actively explored dance forms from diverse world religious and spiritual expression.
Born Ruth Dennis on a farm in New Jersey, her father was an inventor and her mother was a physician who encouraged Ruth’s early interest in theater and dance. Her early training included formal and social dancing techniques, ballet lessons with Italian ballerina Maria Bonfante and skirt dancing.
In 1892 Ruth began her professional career in New York City. Initially she worked as a skirt dancer, a dance in which women dancers would manipulate long, layered skirts with their arms to create a motion of flowing fabric. Six years later, Ruth was noticed by David Belasco, a successful Broadway producer and director. He gave her the stage name “St. Denis” and hired her as a featured dancer in his company. With the dance company she toured around the United States and Europe and met diverse dancers and dance forms that would later inspire her solo dances.
She became very interested in the dancing techniques and emotions of Eastern cultures and created her own theory of dance based upon all of her early training, dancers she worked with and her reading on mythology and cultures. She left Belasco’s company in 1905 for a career as a solo artist.
In 1906, she shocked a New York audience with her portrayal in flowing robes and freestyle dance of Radha, an Indian goddess. “Radha” was her attempt at translating her understanding of Indian mythology and culture into dance form. At this point in her career, Ruth thought that Europe might offer her more. She spent three years traveled Europe performing her “translations” before returning to the United States where her dances were well-received.
In 1915 she, along with her husband and dancing partner Ted Shawn, founded the Denishawn School of Dancing in Los Angeles. The school was known for its influence on ballet and experimental modern dance. It became the training grounds for dancers including Martha Graham, Jack Cole, Charles Weideman, Lillian Powell, and Doris Humphreys. The school also had a touring dance troupe that traveled the country popularizing dance as a performing art.
In 1931, Denishawn disbanded and Ruth turned to religious dance, a lifelong interest, and performed in churches and synagogues. She founded Adelphi University’s dance program in 1938. It was one of the first dance departments in an American university. Additionally, she continued to teach and choreograph independently as well as with other artists.
Ruth died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 89. She left a lasting legacy on the American modern dance movement, not just with her interpretations of cultural-inspired dances, but also in fostering dance through her Denishawn School of Dance. Many of her students would later became pivotal figures in dance.
Video shows Ruth St. Denis in the ‘East Indian Nautch Dance’ (1932)