Ruth St. Denis was a major influence on Murshid Samuel L. Lewis, who called her “Mata-Ji” (Honored Mother) and referred to her as “my fairy godmother.” She was a source of inspiration in Murshid SAM’s creation of the Dances of Universal Peace and of the Spiritual Walks. In his diaries, Murshid SAM reports several profound encounters with her at pivotal times in his ministry, and says she taught him the faculty of “drawing music and dances right out of the cosmos, out of the heart-of-God.”
Ruth Dennis was born on a farm in rural New Jersey on January 20, 1879. The daughter of a strong-willed and highly educated woman (Ruth Emma Dennis was a physician by training), St. Denis was encouraged to study dance from an early age. Her early training included Delsarte technique, ballet lessons with the Italian ballerina Maria Bonfante, and popular social dance forms. Ruth began her professional career in New York City in 1892, where she worked in a dime museum and in vaudeville houses as a “skirt dancer,” a female dancer whose legs were visible under her short skirt. St. Denis was probably required to perform her dance routine as many as eleven times a day.
In 1898, the young dancer was noticed by David Belasco, a well-known and highly successful Broadway producer and director. He hired her to perform with his large company as a featured dancer, and was also responsible for giving her the stage name “St. Denis.” She toured with Belasco’s company around the United States and in Europe, and was exposed to the work of several important European artists, including the Japanese dancer Sado Yacco and the great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt.
St. Denis’ artistic imagination was ignited by these artists. She became enthralled by the dance and drama of Eastern cultures, including those of Japan, India, and Egypt. She was also influenced by Bernhardt’s melodramatic acting style, in which the tragic fate of her characters took center stage. After 1900, St. Denis began formulating her own theory of dance/drama based on the techniques of her early training, her readings into philosophy, scientology, and the history of ancient cultures, and the work of artists like Yacco and Bernhardt.
In 1904, during one of her tours with Belasco, she saw a poster of the goddess Isis in an ad for Egyptian Deities cigarettes. The image of the goddess sparked her imagination and resulted in the creation of a solo dance, Radha, telling the story of a mortal maid who was loved by the god Krishna. St. Denis designed her own elaborate and exotic costume, and performed the dance with three extras from the then flourishing Coney Island Hindi community.
In Radha’s staging, St. Denis surrounded her Indian maiden with symbols of the five senses: bells for hearing; flowers for smelling; wine for tasting; jewels for seeing; and kisses of the palm for touching. St. Denis danced barefoot, which was unheard of at the time and considered quite risqué. At the conclusion of one of these early performances, the audience sat in stunned silence for nearly twenty minutes before finally bursting into thunderous applause. Radha was the first of many creations by St. Denis translating her understanding of Eastern culture and mythology to the dance stage.
St. Denis’ career as a solo artist began in 1905 with Radha, and continued to blossom the following year when St. Denis and her mother went to Europe and traveled the continent performing her “dance translations,” which by now included The Cobra, Incense, The Nautch, and The Yogi. She was declared a sensation, and was particularly successful in Vienna, Austria, and in Germany, where a bronze nude of her is still part of the permanent collection of the Museum Ludwig in Köln.
In 1909 she returned to the US and gave a series of well-received concerts in New York and other major cities. During the next five years she continued to tour, building her reputation as an exotic dancer with an artistic bent, in the still-emerging genre of modern dance which she helped to create and define. It is during this period that “Professor Inayat Khan” and his group of classical Indian musicians were the opening act for one of her performances.
In 1914 St. Denis married Ted Shawn, one of her dance partners, and the next year they founded the Denishawn dance school and company in Los Angeles. Among St. Denis’ students were future dance pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphreys, and Charles Weidman. St. Denis’ choreographic style broadened to include group numbers occasionally derived from Occidental as well as Oriental sources. Among her choreographic innovations was “music visualization,” a style that called for movement equivalents to the timbres, dynamics, rhythm, and structural shapes of music.
In 1931, St. Denis retired briefly from public performance, and founded the Society of Spiritual Arts. She devoted much of the rest of her life to promoting the use of dance in religion. In 1940, with La Meri (Russell M. Hughes), she founded the School of Natya to continue the teaching of Oriental dance. She also resumed performing in 1940 with an appearance at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival founded in 1933 by Ted Shawn, where she continued to appear nearly every year until 1964. Shawn directed the activities at Jacob’s Pillow until his passing in 1972, and the 10-week festival is now the longest-running dance festival in the US, drawing over 80,000 visitors a year. The Jacob’s Pillow Archives contain photos, film, audiotapes, costumes, and music from St. Denis’ later performances, and although St. Denis and Shawn destroyed many Denishawn sets and props when they dissolved the company, some remnants were transported to Jacob’s Pillow and remain in the archives. There is no official inventory of sets and props, but there are recognizable elements from Cosmic Dance of Siva, Feather of the Dawn, and White Jade, as well as many unidentified materials.
Later in life, St. Denis formed a church, St. Denis Religious Art Church, whose mission was the realization of the Divine through the Arts. In 1954, the Hindu mystic Swami Papa Ramdas visited Los Angeles on his world tour, and was Ruth’s guest speaker. He describes her devotional dance which closed the meeting: “She went in and dressed herself for the occasion and came out dancing. Her dance exhibited serpentine movements of an ethereal type. There was perfect silence in the church. The slow movements of her dance created waves of peace that rose and fell in cadence. For us, who have never witnessed such dances, it was indeed a revelation. The impression left on our minds was a combination of surprise and elevation.”
St. Denis was often called the “First Lady of American Dance” and the “Queen of American Dance.” She remained active into the 1960s, when many of her better-known solos were recorded on film. Although St. Denis has been compared to her contemporary Isadora Duncan, these two artists were inherently different in their approach to the solo dance. According to St. Denis’ biographer Suzanne Shelton, Duncan sought “the Self in the Universe,” and St. Denis sought “the Universe in the Self.” For St. Denis, exotic worlds could be explored from the vantage point of one’s own body. In her dances, she embodied a vision of perfection inspired by the figures of divinity that she chose to portray–Radha, Mary, Kwan Yin, the Yogi, O-Mika, and others. By choosing figures from many different cultures, she presented a wordless show of spiritual/material unity before thousands of audiences all over the world throughout her life. She passed on July 21, 1968.
In her unpublished book The Divine Dance (1933), Ruth St. Denis wrote: “The dance of the future will no longer be concerned with meaningless dexterities of the body…Remembering that [we are] indeed the microcosm, the universe in miniature, the Divine Dance of the future should be able to convey with its slightest gestures some significance of the universe…As we rise higher in the understanding of ourselves, the national and racial dissonances will be forgotten in the universal rhythms of Truth and Love. We shall sense our unity with all peoples who are moving to that exalted rhythm.”
-- Farrunnissa Rosa
• Wisdom Comes Dancing, by Ruth St. Denis, ed. Kamae A Miller, Seattle WA, Peace-Works Publications, 1997
• Sufi Vision And Initiation, by Samuel L. Lewis, ed. Neil Douglas-Klotz, San Rafael CA, Sufi Islamia/Prophecy Publications, 1986
• Ruth St. Denis: A Biography of the Divine Dancer, by Suzanne Shelton, Austin TX, University of Texas Press, 1981
• World is God, by Swami Ramdas, Kerala, India, Sharada Press–Ananadashram, 1955