Denishawn School of Dance Opens

American modern dance blossomed when Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn established a school that fostered the talents of the first generation of great modern dancers and helped to establish American dance as a legitimate art form.

Summary of Event

The marriage of Ruth St. Denis to Ted Shawn in 1914 began a partnership that contributed significantly to the development of American modern dance. The institution of Denishawn, created from the collaboration of these two dancers, emerged in the first few decades of the twentieth century as the impetus for a dance school, a pedagogic theory, and a performing company. Denishawn School
Modern dance
Choreography;modern dance
[kw]Denishawn School of Dance Opens (Summer, 1915)
[kw]School of Dance Opens, Denishawn (Summer, 1915)
[kw]Dance Opens, Denishawn School of (Summer, 1915)
Denishawn School
Modern dance
Choreography;modern dance
[g]United States;Summer, 1915: Denishawn School of Dance Opens[03810]
[c]Dance;Summer, 1915: Denishawn School of Dance Opens[03810]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Summer, 1915: Denishawn School of Dance Opens[03810]
St. Denis, Ruth
Shawn, Ted
Graham, Martha
Humphrey, Doris
Weidman, Charles
Horst, Louis

An outdoor performance by some of the students of the Denishawn School.

(Library of Congress)

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn officially acquired the name Denishawn on February 6, 1915. A theater manager ran a promotion in which contestants competed to name a ballroom dance that the couple performed on the vaudeville circuit. The winning name, Denishawn, then became the official title of the dance school directed by St. Denis and Shawn. The first Denishawn school was established in Los Angeles during the summer of 1915 as the Ruth St. Denis School of Dancing and Its Related Arts. In the summer of 1916, however, the school underwent a name change and became known thereafter as the Denishawn School.

Known for her exotic and highly theatrical dances, St. Denis supplied inspiration and an image of glamour and spirituality to the Denishawn School. She emphasized the dance techniques of the East and included the history and philosophy of dance within her classes. St. Denis also experimented with music visualization at Denishawn. In this method, the movements and rhythms of each dancer directly correspond with a specific instrument in the orchestral score. The dancers become physical manifestations of the musical notation.

St. Denis’s husband and collaborator, Shawn, offered a more systematic approach to movement. He maintained respect for formalized technical dance training and helped to create a curriculum of study at the Denishawn School. Although he did not view it as an exclusive form of training, Shawn felt that some training in classical ballet was indispensable to the dancer, as long as the instructor taught with wisdom and discrimination. The Denishawn system of training included an adaptation of ballet instruction executed while barefoot. The curriculum included ethnic and folk dance in addition to training in eurythmics, in which the dancer enhanced rhythmic sense and expression through a progression of physical exercises that were originally formulated by Swiss music teacher Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. Denishawn also offered beginning German modern dance as well as training derived from the work of François Delsarte. Delsarte, François Delsarte, a French teacher of music and acting, developed a complex system of gesture in relation to human expression. Shawn maintained that Delsarte’s teaching was the first to incorporate the concepts of tension and relaxation, or contraction and release, which still serve as a foundation for much of modern dance. St. Denis and Shawn hired a disciple of Delsarte to bring this training to Denishawn.

The Denishawn system of training was eclectic yet energetic and colorful. A typical dance class at Denishawn began with stretching exercises performed with one hand on the ballet barre for support. The dancer performed a basic ballet warm-up at the barres that circumscribed the periphery of the studio and then progressed to the center of the floor. Arm exercises were executed next, in addition to a series of balletic dance combinations designed to promote strength, flexibility, and coordination. After these initial exercises, the student performed an array of ethnic dance styles, including dances of Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese, and East Indian derivation. As a closure to class work, dancers often learned an excerpt from the Denishawn repertory. A dance called Tunisienne promoted the dexterous use of finger cymbals. Japanese dance forms were taught through repertory dances such as Lady Picking Mulberries. Several other dances, such as Serenata Morisca, Maria-Mari, Gnossienne, and Invocation to the Thunderbird, originated as classroom exercises; thus performance repertory also emerged from the classroom dance combinations that St. Denis and Shawn taught at the school.

Out of the Denishawn School a dance company evolved that was destined to nurture some of the greatest names in modern dance. St. Denis and Shawn had performed together since 1914, and with the establishment of the school in 1915, the couple began training other dancers to perform with them. The Denishawn dancers performed a repertoire that was as eclectic and vigorous as was their classroom training. In a typical Denishawn concert, the company of from seven to twelve dancers performed St. Denis’s music visualizations, Spanish dances, Japanese pieces, dances sharing an Egyptian motif, and dances based on American themes. Most of the pieces were not authentic ethnic dances reflecting traditional cultural forms; rather, they were dances that retained a flavor of foreign lands. St. Denis, for example, incorporated authentic costumes and music for her Egyptian-influenced ballet Radha; however, the music was played on Western instruments.

Denishawn fostered and refined the talents of several dancers who would later become prominent figures in the field of modern dance. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman were among the early Denishawn dancers and teachers, fulfilling dual roles as performers with the company and instructors within the school. For a decade following the opening of the Denishawn School, musician and composer Louis Horst accompanied dance classes and served as musical director. Accompanied by a staff of talented artists, St. Denis and Shawn expanded Denishawn, opening an additional school in New York City and mentoring teachers of the Denishawn method in many small towns across the country.


The partnership of St. Denis and Shawn that propagated the Denishawn School and company lasted for eighteen years. From 1914 through 1932, the duo completed thirteen major tours of the United States and emerged as pioneers of American dance, creating an audience for the art form among the middle-class theater clientele much as the tours of Sergei Diaghilev did for ballet.

St. Denis and Shawn were advocates of diversity within the education of the dancer. They believed that a dancer must study a multitude of techniques and styles in order to become a more proficient performer. During the 1930’s, Denishawn sponsored the first course in the United States that incorporated the dance technique created by German modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman. Both Shawn and St. Denis continued to study dance forms themselves in an attempt to enhance their art, and, while on tour in the Far East, the couple studied dance in Japan, China, Burma, India, and Ceylon.

Between August, 1925, and November, 1926, the Denishawn company toured the Far East and became the first American dance company to perform in the Orient. The company also performed in Great Britain, and Shawn presented a solo program during a three-month tour of Germany. St. Denis, Shawn, and the Denishawn dancers completed five individual concerts at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, the last of which marked the final performance of Denishawn on August 28, 1931. After this concert, the partnership of St. Denis and Shawn dissolved, and each followed an individual career in the dance world. Shawn toured with a group of male dancers and wrote several books on dance, including Dance We Must (1940) and Fundamentals of a Dance Education (1937). He taught dance at a number of colleges, thereby helping to establish and legitimate dance in academe.

In the latter part of the 1930’s, Shawn formed a famous group of male dancers that toured the United States. He worked to dispel ideas of dance as solely a feminine activity and championed the cause of dance as a worthy occupation for men. Shawn consistently commissioned original music scores for his choreography and began the practice of collaboration with composers. Much of his choreography explored specifically American themes, including themes concerning early pioneers, Native Americans, and African Americans. Later, Shawn founded and directed Jacob’s Pillow School of Dance Jacob’s Pillow School of Dance[Jacobs Pillow School of Dance] in Lee, Massachusetts, which continued after his death as a prestigious summer dance program.

St. Denis focused her attention on the development of Denishawn House in New York City and continued to perform solos of a multicultural nature, including her interpretation of biblical psalms that utilized the Indian gesture language of mudras. St. Denis’s major contributions to the dance world include her experimentation with music visualization and her choreography, which often accentuated mystical or religious themes. Although she was not known as a technically proficient dancer, St. Denis brought to the general populace the essence of exotic lands through her dances.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Denishawn was its presentation of contemporary American dance as a legitimate art form. Prior to the establishment of Denishawn, dance in the United States largely consisted of performances by vaudevillians, acrobatic and novelty dancers, “hoofers,” and skirt dancers. Exponents of European dance were the only dancers seriously regarded by the American public, and many talented young American performers, such as ballet dancer Augusta Maywood and modern dancer Isadora Duncan, pursued careers in Europe. Denishawn helped to convert theatergoers to American dance and assisted in establishing it as a serious art form.

As pioneers of modern dance, St. Denis and Shawn tilled the fertile ground for the first generation of great modern dancers. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman were all leading dancers in the Denishawn company. In 1916, Graham entered the Denishawn School and studied almost exclusively with Shawn. Graham performed with the Denishawn company from 1919 to 1923, after which she embarked on an independent dance career that spanned almost seventy years and established her as one of the greatest figures in American modern dance. Humphrey began studies at Denishawn in 1917 and subsequently danced with the company from 1918 to 1928. In 1928, Humphrey and her partner, Weidman, left to found a school and dance company in New York City. Weidman had performed with Denishawn for the previous eight years. All of these paramount figures of modern dance were greatly influenced by the training and theatrical experience offered at Denishawn; however, they left the Denishawn company when their original ideas and independent ambitions were stifled. Critic John Martin has stated that modern dance originated more as a rebellion against the Denishawn system than as an outgrowth of it. Nevertheless, as a direct result of Denishawn and the pioneering efforts of St. Denis and Shawn, American modern dance came into existence during the 1920’s. Denishawn School
Modern dance
Choreography;modern dance

Further Reading

  • Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. In-depth examination of the development of American modern dance includes discussion of Denishawn and its influence. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Kraus, Richard, Sarah Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. Comprehensive history of dance discusses the beginning years of modern dance in chapter 7, which provides an overview of Denishawn as well as information on early influences of Denishawn and brief biographies of St. Denis and Shawn. Places Denishawn in context with other events and individuals involved in the development of modern dance. Includes photographs, bibliography, and indexes.
  • McDonagh, Don. Complete Guide to Modern Dance. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Provides a concise overview of the development of Denishawn within historical and cultural context, along with biographies of St. Denis and Shawn, descriptions of nine Denishawn dances, and a chronology of the choreography of St. Denis and Shawn. Includes photographs, annotated bibliography, and index.
  • Shelton, Suzanne. Ruth St. Denis: A Biography of the Divine Dancer. 1981. Reprint. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Provides an extensive account of the Denishawn School and company as well as detailed information on St. Denis’s early life and career. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Sherman, Jane. Denishawn: The Enduring Influence. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Work by a former Denishawn dancer focuses on the Denishawn School and company rather than on St. Denis and Shawn. Includes a chronology of the company, appendixes devoted to Denishawn choreography, photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • _______. The Drama of Denishawn Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Provides clear descriptions of specific Denishawn dances from 1914 to 1926 and offers intriguing accounts of the company’s choreography. Includes many photographs never before published, a chronology of Denishawn tours, appendixes of choreography, bibliography, and index.
  • Terry, Walter. Miss Ruth: The “More Living Life” of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969. Biography of St. Denis places her work with the Denishawn school within the larger context of her life and times. Includes an interesting epilogue featuring quotations from St. Denis.
  • Thomas, Helen. Dance, Modernity, and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance. New York: Routledge, 1995. Approaches the study of dance from a sociological perspective, noting the influences of societal change, economics, and popular culture on dance and other art forms. Discusses Denishawn in this context. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and indexes.

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