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The Life of Ruth St. Denis

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The Life of Ruth St. Denis

In 1879, on a small New Jersey farm, Ruth Dennis was born. She was the daughter of Ruth Emma Dennis, an extremely independent, determined, and educated woman. Her Mother was a highly trained physician. At a very early age, St. Denis was encouraged to study dance. Her training included social dance forms and skirt dancing, lessons from Maria Bonfante, and Delsarte technique.

St. Denis's professional career began in 1892. In New York City, she worked as a skirt dancer in dime museums and vaudeville houses. "Dime museums featured "leg dancers" (female dancers whose legs were visible under their short skirts) in brief dance routines."# In that type of atmosphere, St. Denis was worked to the bone and forced to perform her routine at least ten times a day. However, in 1898, David Belasco noticed the young Ruth during one of her vaudeville performances. Belasco was a very successful and well known Broadway producer and director. He hired Ruth to perform as a dancer in his company. He was also responsible for giving her the stage name "St. Denis." The popularity of Ruth St. Denis exploded in the United States and Europe as she toured with his production of "Zaza." During her touring, she was introduced to many influential artists, such as Japanese Dancer Sado Yacco and English actress Sarah Bernhardt.

St. Denis's creative juices really began to flow after meeting these artists. She became extremely interested in Eastern cultures, such as Japan, India, and Egypt, and their forms of dance and drama. Bernhardt's overdramatic acting style was also very influential to St. Denis. Ruth loved how the tragic fate of Bernhardt's characters always took center stage. After 1900, "St. Denis began formulating her own theory of dance and drama based on the techniques of her early training, her readings into philosophy, scientology, the history of ancient cultures,"# and the work of artists like Yacco and Bernhardt. A few years later, during a tour with Belasco, she saw an advertisement for Egyptian cigarettes. The ad was simply an image of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Nevertheless, this simple image aroused St. Denis's imagination and she immediately began reading about Egypt. Her interest in India soon followed.

St. Denis left Belasco's company in 1905 to begin her career as a solo artist. "She had designed an elaborate and exotic costume and a series of steps telling the story of a mortal maid who was loved by the god Krishna. Entitled "Radha," this solo dance (with three extras) was first performed in Proctor's Vaudeville House in New York City." (Shelton 84). This initial act was St. Denis's first attempt to translate her understanding of other cultures to the dance stage. Over the next five years, she traveled to other continents performing her translations and continued to build her reputation.

After 1911, the solo dancer trend died down. In order to support herself, St. Denis began offering private lessons to women. Unfortunately, one of her main customers died on the Titanic and left St. Denis in serious financial trouble. In a panic, she headed back to the studio and came up with a new Japanese translation, "O-Mika", but it was not a success. St. Denis decided to start adding other performers to her act in an effort to increase her popularity. In 1914, she hired Ted Shawn, who was highly trained in the Delsarte technique. Shawn added an entirely new range of popular dance forms, from tango to ragtime, into the act. All the while, St. Denis continued to perform her cultural translations. Shawn and St. Denis soon became enamored with each other and were married in 1914. Not even a year later, they founded Denishawn dance school and company in Los Angeles, California. It was the "most important American dance school at that time" (Ernst 5). Denishawn trained many future dance pioneers. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman are prime examples of the extraordinary students that attended the school.

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn separated, both martially and professionally, in 1931. Soon after, St. Denis took a short retirement from public performance. During that time, she founded the Society of Spiritual Arts.

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