Ruth St. Denis (1878?-1968), American dancer and choreographer, was one of the founders of modern dance. Her work was characterized by its religious and Far Eastern content.
Ruth St. Denis, whose name was originally Ruth Dennis, was born in Newark, N.J., on January 20, probably in 1878, the daughter of an inventor father and a physician mother. At the age of 10 Ruth started dancing and gave her first solo performance in 1893 in a play produced by her mother.
Professional dance at this time presented two equally uninspiring alternatives: the world of vaudeville and the moribund classical ballet of opera. Miss St. Denis was delivered from this dilemma when she discovered an advertising poster for Egyptian Deities cigarettes showing the goddess Isis sitting on a throne. Immediately she saw the possibility of developing a dance on an Egyptian theme. While doing research on the culture and dance of Egypt, she discovered the dances of India.
With the help of some Indian friends, Miss St. Denis danced the radha, a freestyle Indian dance. She was the first in the Western world to introduce to a legitimate audience Oriental and Eastern dancing. The dances were accompanied by European music performed on Western musical instruments. American audiences were hostile to her experiments, labeling her the "Jersey Hindoo" and comparing her with the belly dancers at the local burlesque houses.
Miss St. Denis toured in Europe from 1906 to 1909, and her dances proved a great success. Like the dancer Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis was also preoccupied with mysticism and was not concerned with steps but with the expressive movement of the body. But her style was more exotic and more lavishly theatrical—combining lights, scenery, costumes, music, and story in one unified experience—and her dances were much more religious.
In 1910 Miss St. Denis became the first solo dancer to play a New York theater as the evening star attraction. She continued to experiment with new dance forms. In 1913 she presented her Egypta dances and gave the first performance of O'Mika, a Japanese ballet based on her study of Japanese No theater.
In 1914 Miss St. Denis married her dancing partner, Ted Shawn, and they set up the Denishawn School of Dancing, the first serious school of dance in America with a standard curriculum. From 1915 to 1931 it was the training ground for America's leading dancers and choreographers. Thirteen Denishawn tours of America helped create a basic audience for modern dance and establish dance in America as an accepted art form. The school's approach was eclectic and experimental. In 1925, for example, Miss St. Denis created Tragica, the first dance without music. In 1930 she and Shawn separated, and the school disbanded.
As a result of her study of Oriental systems of thought, Ruth St. Denis extended the religious implications of her dancing. In 1931 she founded the Society of Spiritual Arts to establish the dance as an instrument of worship. In 1947 she formed a Church of the Divine Dance in Hollywood, where she conducted dance masses and rituals. She continued to dance and experiment until her eighties. She died on July 21, 1968.
Further Reading on Ruth St. Denis
Ruth St. Denis's own account is An Unfinished Life: An Autobiography (1939). The authorized and most comprehensive biography is by a lifelong friend and dance critic, Walter Terry, Miss Ruth: The "More Living Life" of Ruth St. Denis (1969). An early appraisal was written by Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis: Pioneer and Prophet (1920). See also Walter Terry, The Legacy of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis (1959).
Additional Biography Sources
Shelton, Suzanne, Divine dancer: a biography of Ruth St. Denis, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.