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Administrative Information Table of Contents Biographical History: Barton Mumaw

Shawn, Ted Letters to Barton Mumaw 1940-1971

- Biographical History: Ted Shawn

Biographical History: Ted Shawn

Ted Shawn (1891-1972), well known for his pioneering efforts in American modern dance, began dancing as a means of physical therapy. In his third year of studying for the ministry at the University of Denver, he contracted a case of diphtheria, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. While he was nursing himself back to health, he realized that dancing would become his lifetime career.

Shawn's first teacher was Hazel Wallack in Denver, with whom he studied ballet and ballroom exhibition dancing. At the same time he worked independently and began to perform his own choreographic works. In 1912 Shawn moved to Los Angeles, where he established a school and small performing company. The following year he and his dancing partner, Norma Gould, embarked with their company of Interpretive Dancers upon a cross-country tour and reached New York after nineteen performances.

While in New York Shawn arranged his first meeting with Ruth St. Denis. He had seen her perform in Denver and was convinced that they should work together. During their first meeting they discussed their artistic ideas and ambitions, and Shawn returned the next day to demonstrate his dancing. He was then hired by Miss St. Denis' brother and manager to be her partner. On April 13, 1914, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn began a tour of the southern United States. In August of the same year they were married.

In 1915 they founded the first Denishawn school in Los Angeles with the intent of providing students with a diversified dance education. They believed that a dancer should learn all styles of dance rather than concentrating on one form; therefore, they offered classes in ballet, modern, ethnic, and creative dance. Within a few years Shawn and Miss St. Denis had established Denishawn schools throughout the United States. They built up an extensive repertory of spiritual, ethnic, character, and "music visualization" dances, which they performed with their company of Denishawn Dancers on tours of the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Far East from 1915-1932. Some of their dancers, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, later went on to develop the field of modern dance. In 1932 Denishawn disbanded, and Shawn and Miss St. Denis pursued separate careers.

Shawn established a company of all male dancers in an effort to prove that dancing was an acceptable art form for men. They rehearsed, choreographed, and trained at Jacob's Pillow, Shawn's farm in Lee, Massachusetts, and performed throughout the United States from 1933 to 1940. Shawn continued to perform, generally as a solo artist, until 1962, but after 1940 his efforts became more concentrated upon dance in education. He established the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and University of the Dance which, by combining daily classes and evening performances, became the first intensive summer dance program in the United States. Shawn's primary aim again was to provide students with a well-rounded dance background, which he achieved by inviting performers and instructors from all over the world.

In addition to his work at Jacob's Pillow, Shawn lectured at universities and other institutions throughout the United States. During his lifetime he also published nine books, including: Ruth St. Denis: Pioneer and Prophet (1920), The American Ballet (1926), Gods who Dance (1929), Fundamentals of a Dance Education (1935), Dance We Must (1940), How Beautiful Upon the Mountain (1944), Every Little Movement (1954), Thirty-three Years of American Dance (1959), and One Thousand and One Night Stands (with Gray Poole, 1960).

Shawn continued to direct Jacob's Pillow every summer and also pursue his career as a scholarly speaker and writer until his death in 1972.


Administrative Information Table of Contents Biographical History: Barton Mumaw