Ruthie Dennis was born in 1878. She grew up on a farm in New Jersey, a rural environment filled with fads, patent medicines, and amateur theatricals.
“I remember best the swing under the old red barn…at first with the thrilling lift of the swing, I used to feel I was a bird or a cloud or the wind. This never-failing experience of ecstatic freedom and domination over time and the world below would merely fold up in some recess of my spirit.”
Ruthie’s mother was a woman about fifty years ahead of her time. She had a degree in medicine and was a highly religious and moral woman. Independent not only in thought but in dress as well.
“In the midst of fashions which dictated corsets, bustles, four starched petticoats, and hair rats, my strong-minded mother would have none of them.”
Religion and health were Ruthie’s mother’s concerns, while poetry, inventions, and intellectual freedom were her father’s. Thomas Dennis, an English engineer, and free-thinker had moved to America and dreamed of inventing a flying machine. You might say that Ruthie was raised in a strange combination of scientific intellectualism and mysticism.
Isolated as she was on a New Jersey farm, she was hungry for experience. It was the theater of spectacle-extravaganza that provided it. Theatrical entertainments featured at the Barnum and Bailey Circus were carefully designed to please rural audiences in the 1880s. They were lavish spectacles that combined inaccurate historical events with pantomime and tableaux and some ballet. They had titles like, “Nero and the Destruction of Rome,” and “Egypt through the Centuries”. After seeing one of these performances, Ruthie went home and slashed up a pair of her mother’s curtains to create a dancing costume.
When Ruthie was about eleven, her mother took her to a performance of Genevieve Stebbens, a student of Delsarte. Stebbens’ performances contained poses copied from Greek statues and ritual motions of Eastern religion.
“The image of Genevieve Stebbens’ white, Grecian figure became so indelibly printed on my mind that everything I subsequently did stemmed from the revelation,” she said.
Ruthie went to dancing school, as all well-mannered boys and girls of the day did. She also took some ballet classes and showed great natural ability to do stunts, splits, and cartwheels.
Vaudeville in its great days was a major molder of American culture. It offered a program of variety acts intended for family consumption. Vaudeville was the only stage where solo dancers could practice their art. Thanks to Vaudeville, Ruthie’s career was launched at Worth’s Museum on the corner of 13th St in New York City in 1896.
Ruthie was a natural dancer. She was talented as well as beautiful, and soon became a successful vaudeville dancer who dreamed of greater things. She was a romantic. She longed for a world of beauty; of tremendous and noble emotions; and of elevated senses and spirit.
The launch of her career
David Belasco, the flamboyant impresario hired her for a production of ZAZA in 1899 and she stayed in his company for the next six years. It was while she was with Belasco that she attended the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900 and saw performances of Loie Fuller and Japanese artist, Sadi Yaco.
The story goes…that she encountered a picture of the Egyptian goddess Isis, on a cigarette poster in Buffalo, New York…and it changed her life. It symbolized all the things St. Denis wished for in her dance…a mystical thread that prevailed throughout her whole career.
Additional inspiration came by way of India. India as viewed from Coney Island, where an exhibit of Hindus entertaining with their native dances caught her attention.
When she created a dance inspired by the Indian legend of Radha and the god Krishna, she became a star. To St. Denis, these legends gave her an idiom somewhere between the spiritual and the theatrical.
She also created a dance called COBRAS, a sensuous interpretation of a snake charmer, and the INCENSE, which she continued to perform for the next 60 years.
She had to create roles that would satisfy both her body and her soul. She was a born entertainer who belonged in the theater, but she just had to bend it a little toward the sacred.
In 1910, people flocked to see Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Maud Allen, and Ruth St. Denis. Each embodied some features of Art Nouveau, and they all showed how dancing could reflect an individual rather than a set of formal rules.
Stay tuned for next week as we explore the later part of her career with her partner, Ted Shawn.