Repertory Dance Theatre

RDT is celebrating Women’s History Month by exploring the history of modern dance pioneer, Ruth St. Denis. Click here for part 1.

In 1914 Ballroom dancing became fashionable and dancing with a partner more socially acceptable.

Ruth St. Denis decided she needed to hire a dancing partner. An ex-divinity student and aspiring performer auditioned. St. Denis wound up with a partner and a husband in Ted Shawn. He was 14 years younger than Ruth. Together they formed a company and school that trained the next generation of dancers…the MODERN DANCERS.

The company was called DENISHAWN, and was the first American dance institution. It opened in Los Angeles in 1915 and offered an eclectic variety of instruction in all styles of dance, meditation, breathing, and music visualization.


MUSIC VISUALIZATION was movement that tried to reflect the structure and quality of the accompaniment. It was a technique that helped inspire the beginning of Modern Dance. Both St. Denis and Shawn were students of Delsartism, the system of training for speakers and actors that assigned expressive meaning to shapes and poses of the body. Denishawn dance incorporated characteristic gestures from painting and sculpture to give the appropriate exotic flavor.


Ruth acted as a spiritual influence on the students and provided the glamour. Shawn was the genial host. Besides the training, Denishawn offered participation in a Grand pageant. The most gorgeous and magnificent dance pageant ever produced — depicted the life and afterlife of Egypt, Greece, and India featuring 100 trained dancers. TILLERS OF THE SOIL was one of the famous sections. The Denishawn pageant outclassed all other pageants and ten thousand attended a performance at the University of California’s Greek Theater in 1916.

During the 1920’s, Denishawn toured the United States and spent over a year abroad traveling from Japan to India, China, and the Philippines. It brought to thousands of Americans far from the big cities the first art dancing they had ever seen. Denishawn gave audiences popular entertainment on an elevated plane. But the greatest contribution of the Denishawn company was to be through three daring and gifted choreographers who were to break away to discover their own dance. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.

Even after the demise of Denishawn in 1931, St Denis refused to give up her original status in the dance world and performed another 40 years calling herself, “The First Lady of the Dance.”

Soaring by Ruth St. Denis & Isadora Duncan (1920)

Valse A La Loie (Scarf Dance) performed by Rosy Goodman in 2012. Photo by Nathan Sweet
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