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Essay: The Life and Works of Ruth St. Denis: Revolutionizing American Modern Dance

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Ruth St. Denis was a profound dancer and choreographer that revolutionized American modern dance. Growing up in a family of "strong willed and highly educated women", Denis was given strong support and encouragement to obtain training in dance such as learning the Delsarte technique, ballet lessons and various social dance forms (pitt.edu, ch.2). As a young child, she was exposed to various styles of dance and this gave her a strong foundation to build an outlet to later explore her passion for the art, spirituality and her personal identity. Denis spent a majority of her childhood visiting and exploring on a farm in Somerville, New Jersey. It was here that her "fascination with spiritual aspects of mother nature" (Hect, 2012) was developed. These influences can later be seen in her choreography where she reflects her "innate relation with mother nature" ( As a teenager, Denis was exposed a vast amount of literature that inspired her to explore her curiosity about spirituality. She began to learn about various spiritual practices such as Buddhism and this "context of spirituality inspired her to translate spiritual energy into choreographic practices that combined spiritual rituals with dance and movement" (Hect, 2012).

Denis first began her professional dance training in New York City. She worked in a dime museum and in vaudeville houses. During the 19th century, these houses were famous entertainment places that connected people to various music, dancing, comedy and talent acts. While working here, she was exposed to people of various backgrounds, especially immigrants who migrated to the United States. In 1898, Denis was first noticed by a famous and successful  

Broadway producer and director, David Belasco. Under his influence, Ruth Denis was transformed to become "Ruth St.Denis" due to the impact of spiritual rituals inspiring her choreographic works. With Belasco's help, Denis toured around the United States and Europe. Here, she was exposed to various European artists and her artistic imagination began to grow after learning about different cultures around the world. She was fascinated with the dance and drama of Eastern cultures such as Japan, India and Egypt. Inspired by her early dance training and exposure to

various dance styles, Denis began to intensely study philosophy, history and scientology of these ancient cultures. In the early 1900's, she began to devise her own unique theory of expression in dance and drama from her early training and studies. This ignited her passion to later develop into what she's popularly personified as a "dancing saint who celebrates dance as a sensual and spiritual performance art" (Dance Heritage Coalition, 2012).

Denis first began her career as a solo artist in 1905 after leaving Belasco's company to pursue her personal exploration in dance, spirituality and philosophy. Around that time, she was immensely passionate about the Indian culture and rituals. Inspired by the streets of India, Denis choreographed Radha. Her first performance called Incense was a story about Radha, a beloved consort and constant companion of the Hindu god Krishna. This solo dance had elaborate costumes designed by Denis and reflected her understanding about Indian culture and mythology. With the help  

and influence of wealthy benefactor, Mrs. Orlando Rouland, Denis's Incense performance began to showcase at many respectable Broadway theatres. This spread her name and influence around town and Denis grew a unique dancer and choreographer. She began to travel around Europe and the United States performing her solo pieces and this built her reputation as an "exotic dancer with an artistic bent" (pitt.edu, ch.2). Her dances emerged from a deep study and passion of spirituality and within that process of dancing, she developed a closer connection to "God, Faith and Spirituality" (jacobspillow.org, 2018)

Apart from emerging as an influential dancer, Denis began to develop her unique choreographic dance style through her performances and mainly through her teaching dance to others. She began to give private dance lessons to society women that were interested in pursuing the art form. Denis later met Ted Shawn, a fellow dancer with a strong background in the Delsartean technique. Together, the two became a couple and opened a dance school in Los Angeles known as the "The Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts". This school was the channel through which Denis and Shawn built a "major culture empire" (Dance Heritage Coalition, 2012). Here, they also developed their ideas and unique styles of modern dance and their dance curriculum took parts of various dance styles such as ballet, ballroom, oriental dance. They combined these dance styles to later develop the "Denishawn technique". Dancers in this school were encouraged to explore various cultures and spiritual practices to define their own individual artistry and identity as a part of pursuing this technique.

The Denishawn school attracted dance students such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman all of who are major figures who influenced modern dance. St. Denis's contribution to the world of dance is immense as she introduced a sense of open-mindedness in the world of dance. I think that having an open mind especially when pursuing in art such as  

dance is essential because it allows to grow as an artist and express your craft to a wider audience. It's fascinating how Denis incorporated global spiritual practices, exotic costumes and set designs in her dance. It demonstrates her appreciation, respect and continued curiosity to learn about different cultures, their ideas and background. Apart from contributing to the dance world, Denis shared her art form during a time of major culture and social transformation. With an influx of immigrants migrating to the United States, Denis opened a platform where different cultures and their backgrounds are appreciated. I think that by doing so, she created a greater reputation for herself apart from being an influential dance figure. After researching about her life and evolution as a dance figure, I think that a person like St.Denis is a rare artist who took dance to be a personal religious venture. You can tell she was immensely devoted to her craft and that she chased after an existential truth about humanity; perhaps the truth of attaining a sense of liberation to a spiritual level above the mortal materialistic human body.

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