“In a word, we dreamed about a school of life”, wrote Ruth St. Denis about founding, with her husband Ted Shawn, the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. Filmed across two or three summers between 1915 and 1917, according to the New York Public Library, the three-minute silent picture above offers a glimpse into the early activities of their school, when it was housed at the Parkinson Estate on the corner of Sixth Street and St. Paul Avenue in Los Angeles, and, from 1917, at the Westlake School for Girls.
After a brief clip of guests arriving in formal dress to the Denishawn estate — perhaps attendees of a “supper dance” — we are met with a sustained scene of undress, as woman after woman emerges from a changing room, dispensing robes to a turbaned attendant and revealing their one-piece swimsuits with understated flourish. The bathing costumes were the school’s uniform. As Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) describes in her autobiography, “We put bathing suits on them for working clothes, and turn them out into the sun. The release they felt from the circumscription of their ordinary lives filled the days with an artless charm and freedom.” Many of these students in the early days of Denishawn were local women, who paid $1 a day for classes, meals, and lectures. In a proto-Hollywood publicity stunt, Ted Shawn (1891–1972) was known to invite photographers to the grounds with the promise of bathing ladies, and seeded a rumor, reports Paul Scolieri, that “there was a heavy uptick in rental fees for the apartments in the building that faced the Denishawn property.”
Subsequent scenes show a typical day of training. St. Denis leads a seated arm movement, which cuts to students wearing pashminas and head-carrying pots. Shawn auditions a young girl on pointe, before retreating for the garden to thumb through a French costume book. St. Denis wields a peacock feather and pets its living source in a windy colonnade. (The bird was an anniversary gift from her husband; it later escaped, as Shawn did not yet believe that peacocks could fly.) Perhaps St. Denis is practicing The Legend of the Peacock, her long-running solo that had begun as an improvisation on what Jane Sherman describes as “the frustration of being imprisoned in bejeweled vanity”. The film concludes abruptly after the students take a well-earned swim, and two people, likely Shawn and St. Denis, sit down for tea.
Describing his adolescent desires as “completely bisexual”, Shawn had met St. Denis two years earlier, when she invited him blindly for a cup of tea in her Upper West Side apartment. By this point, more than a decade older than Shawn, St. Denis was already a dancer of international renown. Trained in the Delsarte method, which aimed to systematize the expression of emotion through gesture, she became known for her orientalist performances — inspired by an image of the Egyptian goddess Isis that she had once seen on an advert for cigarettes in a Buffalo pharmacy. Shawn had been working at the Los Angeles City Water Department, studying and teaching physical expression in the evenings. Moving to California from Denver in 1912, he had arrived at the same moment that modern ragtime and silent films two-stepped onto the LA scene. His own Edison Company movie, Dances of the Ages (1913), allowed him to save $3000 and attend Bliss Carmen and Mary Perry King’s Uni-Trinian School of Personal Harmonizing and Self-Development, familiarizing the dancer with the Delsartian mode out of which St. Denis had crafted her style.
When the future partners met in her New York sitting room in 1914, it was not quite love at first sight. Shawn recorded his initial impression: “Barefoot, she walks like Helen of Troy; in high heels, Helen of Troy, New York”. St. Denis, in turn, saw before her a man burdened by sexual insecurity, wrestling with “all of the great problems and desires and perplexities of his own nature that were yet to come.” Tea became dinner, they chatted past midnight, and Shawn returned the next day to perform his Dagger Dance, about an Aztec warrior trying to avoid ritual sacrifice. They agreed to tour together, falling in love in Paducah, Kentucky. Shawn proposed; St. Denis declined. Weeks later, she wrote him a twenty-six-page letter, describing “an all around living, progressing, experimenting partnership — in which sex in its particular sphere is a part but not the whole — this is my sense of love + loyalty + fidelity — first of all a friend, then a lover.” Nine months after marrying, the Denishawn school was born.
In its early days, Denishawn was a complex mix of freedom, orientalism, and scientific racism. Ted Shawn viewed dance and eugenics as two methods for incubating idealism in the body. Ruth St. Denis agreed and they co-published articles with titles such as “Dancing Real Factor in Developing Strong and Virile Race of Men”. As Paul Scolieri writes in his recent biography of Shawn, the teacher “reasoned that his idealized white male body had the capacity to perfect the non-European, non-Christian dances he performed”. The school’s fetishism for North African, Indian, and East Asian imagery was, in part, an attempt to inhabit a kind of universal consciousness. In Dance We Must (1950), a volume of Shawn’s collected lectures, he reflects on the “universal language” of dance — how, during the famed Denishawn “Tour of the Orient” in 1925 and 1926, “the Orientals understood us, for we were human beings moving rhythmically and expressively in a manner which the Chinese, Japanese and Malays all understood and enjoyed.” Shawn also had a more-personal motive for his ethnic cosplay — his masculine representations of Eastern warriors and whirling dervishes helped separate his performances from the charge of homosexuality that hung over male dancers in this period.
Though some of its methods appear flawed to modern eyes, Denishawn’s later influence cannot be understated. Pioneers of modern dance such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman trained at the school. Countless film stars, including the Gish sisters, Louise Brooks, and Mabel Normand, studied movement with St. Denis and Shawn. The couple’s partnership in life and art crumbled after both spouses became involved with the same lover, but they never divorced. Describing his final duet with St. Denis before their separation in 1931, Shawn commented: “The two of us were going up and up and up, remembering all the love of the earth but still lovers of infinite distance and infinite space, and still always up, going up.”
May 30, 2023