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St. Denis (Ruth) Letters, ca. 1914-1959

- Biographical Sketch

Biographical Sketch

Ruth Dennis was born in Newark, New Jersey, on January 20, 1879.
Note: Ruth St. Denis claimed she was born in 1878; Ted Shawn claimed it was 1880; her brother claimed it was 1879. Recent evidence presented by biographer Suzanne Shelton supports the 1879 date. She spent her childhood on a farm in Somerville, New Jersey, with her parents, Ruth Emma Hull Dennis, a physician, and Thomas L. Dennis, an inventor. She had a brother Buzz and a half-brother Tom Dennis.

As a child, Ruth practiced exercises from the Delsarte system of expression which she learned from her mother. She also took dance classes in New Jersey and traveled to New York City to study ballet with Mme. Bonfanti. These classes did not last very long as, according to "Miss Ruth," Mme. Bonfanti tossed her out of class after only three lessons. Thus, when Ruthie Dennis embarked upon her professional career, it was with little formal training. She began with minor roles in musical plays, appearing as a "skirt-dancer," acrobat, high-kicker, model and actress. She even participated in a six-day bicycle race at Madison Square Garden.

In 1904, while on a tour with David Belasco's
Note: It was Belasco who first called her "Saint" Dennis because of her "prim deportment." production of Madame DuBarry, Ruth St. Denis was inspired by a cigarette poster depicting the Egyptian goddess Isis to turn her career toward the exploration of dance as a serious art form. She began working on "Egypta," an elaborate Egyptian ballet, but was unable to meet the estimated cost of production. Instead she created "Radha," a Hindu ballet, which was presented on a program with two of her solos, "The Incense" and "The Cobras," at the Hudson Theater in New York City on March 22, 1906. The concert was a tremendous success and prompted Miss Ruth to embark on a tour abroad. She spent three years dancing throughout Europe to wide acclaim. She added "The Nautch" and "The Yogi" to her program and in Germany was offered a five-year contract. Miss Ruth chose not to accept the offer and returned to the United States in 1909 to produce the long awaited "Egypta." For the next few years Ruth St. Deniss toured throughout the United States and danced in Vaudeville.

In 1914 she met Ted Shawn and hired him as her partner. They danced their first concert together on April 13, 1914, and were married on August 13th of the same year. Together they founded the Denishawn schools and company, which were to thrive until 1932. Their schools, which offered a well-rounded dance education program, were established across the country. Courses included Oriental and primitive dance, ballet, ethnic and creative dance, and the Delsarte System of Expression. Performing a repertory of spiritual, ethnic character, and music visualization dances, the Denishawn Company toured extensively in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Orient. Among the notable works were "Spirit of the Sea," "Egyptian Suite," "Soaring," "Sonata Pathetique," "The Peacock," "White Jade," "Liebestraum," "Salome," "East Indian Nautch," "Street Nautch," and "Dance of the Red and Gold Saree."

At the close of their 1931-1932 season, St. Denis and Shawn decided to pursue separate careers, and the era of Denishawn came to a close. It had greatly influenced the art of dance in America for seventeen years and produced such dancers as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, who went on to develop their own dance styles and shape the course for modern dance in America.

After the separation, Ted Shawn went on to found a company of men dancers and the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Ruth St. Denis continued to run Denishawn House in New York City for a short time but was forced to close for financial reasons. She then retired from theatrical dancing and spent the next few years staging religious dances for churches and her Society of Spiritual Arts. In 1935 Miss Ruth stated that the purpose of this organization was to "bring together like-minded people into an environment where ideas have opportunity to be expressed along lines of new horizons of spiritual and aesthetic value."

In 1941 Ruth St. Denis re-created the same concert that had launched her career in 1906 for a performance at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. It was very successful and reintroduced Miss Ruth to theatrical dancing. She performed her "historical" dances in New York and on tour for the next few seasons.

During World War II Ruth St. Denis moved to California, where she lived with her brother, and contributed to the war effort by working at the Douglas Aircraft Factory and participating in benefits for allied causes. She established herself in a new studio on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, which served as her headquarters for the rest of her life.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Miss Ruth devoted most of her time to The Ruth St. Denis Foundation, "an organization designed to assemble, catalogue, and record material pertinent to her career, and to the establishment of a church in which dance and the related arts will be dedicated to religious service."
Note: Walter Terry, "St. Denis, Ruth," The Dance Encyclopedia, ed. by Anatole Chujoy (New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1949), p. 416. She also performed frequently during the summers at Jacob's Pillow as a solo artist and with Ted Shawn.

In 1964 Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at Jacob's Pillow and performed together for the last time. They danced "Siddhas of the Upper Air," a duet choreographed for the occasion to a poem by Miss Ruth with music by Jess Meeker. For the next four years Ruth St. Denis worked with William Skipper on a film illustrating her life through dance and continued to make occasional television appearances.

She died of a stroke on July 21, 1968. In addition to many articles, Ruth St. Denis published An Unfinished Life, her autobiography (1939), and Lotus Light, a book of poems (1932).


Administrative Information Table of Contents Scope and Contents Note