ST.DENIS, RUTH (Ruth Dennis) (1878–1968) Dancer

Ruth St. Denis, one of the pioneers of American modern dance, was born Ruth Dennis at an artist’s colony near Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on January 20, 1878. Her unconventional parents encouraged Ruth’s early interest in performing. In 1893, she ran away from boarding school to give her first formal performance in a production staged by her mother, Emma. When Ruth was 15, Emma took her to New York to audition as a dancer. There, Ruth performed in private concerts and revues for the next 10 years.

Considering herself a serious artist, Ruth struggled with the frivolity and low status of popular dance. In 1904, she was inspired to create her own style of dance after seeing an image on an advertisement for Egyptian Deities cigarettes. Fascinated by ancient religions and the Orient, she became a student of Egyptian and Indian dance. Her efforts resulted in  Radha, the first Western dance piece to attempt to interpret Eastern dancing traditions. At its first performance in 1906, she adopted a new stage name—Ruth St. Denis.

Like many other American artists of the time, St. Denis believed she needed to work in Europe to establish her legitimacy. From 1906 to 1909, she toured the continent, then returned home an international success. She established a studio in New York City, where in 1914 she met Ted Shawn when he auditioned to become her student. Later the same year, the two married, and in 1915 they moved to Los Angeles to establish their own school of dance, which they called Denishawn.

As the first school to teach modern dance in the United States, Denishawn had an enormous infiuence. It legitimized the idea that forms of dance that were not based on classical ballet could nevertheless be considered serious artistic expressions. It also helped train several of the greatest modern dancers of the next generation, including MARTHA GRAHAM and  DORIS HUMPHREY. In addition, tours of the Denishawn dancers introduced people throughout the country to modern dance, thus helping to develop a popular interest for this then experimental art form.

By 1930, the school’s finances were in disarray, and St. Denis’s marriage was floundering. She and Shawn separated (although they never divorced), and he formed his own troupe of male dancers. St. Denis founded a new school, the Society of Spiritual Arts, that taught dance as a form of worship. Although tastes shifted away from the theatrical dances she enjoyed staging, St. Denis continued to be respected among her peers. In 1938, she was hired as the dance director of Adelphi College, but returned to Los Angeles in 1942. There, for more than 20 years, she continued to give dance concerts, including one with Shawn in 1964 to commemorate their golden wedding anniversary. Her reputation in the dance world secure, St. Denis died from a stroke on July 21, 1968.

Further Reading
Miller, Kamae A., ed.  Wisdom Comes Dancing: Selected
Writings of Ruth St. Denis on Dance, Spirituality, and the Body. Seattle, Wa.: Peaceworks, 1997.
Shawn, Ted. Ruth St. Denis: Pioneer and Prophet. San Francisco: J. Howell, 1920.
Shelton, Suzanne. Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Denishawn: The Birth of Modern Dance (1988). Kultur Video, VHS, 1992.