Ted Shawn

“Father of American Dance”

Edwin Myers Shawn, born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1891, grew up in Denver and studied to become a minister at an early age. Developing temporary paralysis from diphtheria at age nineteen, he followed his physician’s advice to take up dance therapy – thereby curing his paralysis and giving spark to his life’s passion. Shawn’s dance training began with Hazel Wallack, a ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera, and by 1913 made his professional debut in a ballroom dance troupe. Shortly thereafter, in 1914, he met dancer Ruth St. Denis and within months they had married and joined artistic forces to create the Denishawn Company and associated Denishawn School in L.A. that would change dance history. Most modern dancers can trace their ancestry to Denishawn [jacobspillow.org]. The company toured America and the world, performing at any event imaginable: society events, church services, stadiums, benefits, in film, etc. While St. Denis may have claimed to posses the gift of artistic inspiration, Shawn retained the know-how to cultivate a nationally successful business and name for greatness. The Denishawn school fostered great American artists Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and even Jack Cole to name a few.

photo: danceheritage.org

Ted Shawn.  Photo: danceheritage.org

By 1930, Shawn and St. Denis has decided to separate (they remained married, however, for the rest of her life to protect Shawn’s emerging homosexuality), and subsequently dissolved the Denishawn Company. Shawn purchased a farm in the Berkshires that would become Jacob’s Pillow, home of America’s oldest dance festival, and lifetime residence (1933-1940) of his “Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers” all male performance troupe. They successfully toured throughout the ’30s, dancing works centered around American history and cultural themes. According to an essay by Paul A. Scolieri, and published by the Dance Heritage Coalition, it was Shawn’s acquaintances and their expansion into homosexual liberation that may have inspired him to initially form the company – of which the star member, Barton Mumaw, was both his muse and lover. Advocating so strongly for the development of male aesthetic in dance arts, and various publications by Shawn proved him to be a contributor to the emerging gay consciousness of the time (Scolieri). Aside from any political implications, Ted Shawn’s company was also a new model for the structure and treatment of company members, providing room, board, medical and dental care, and a meager income through the depression when not much of anyone had much of anything.

photo: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival archives

Circle from Kinetic Molpai.  Photo: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival archives

Shawn continued creating choreography and published numerous essays, editorials, and books on the topics of dance education, traditions, and the roles of men in the dance field. Some titles include: Gods Who Dance, Dance We MustEvery Little Movement (on Delsarte Training), and his autobiography One Thousand and One Night Stands. Shawn nurtured and premiered countless dance artists, including Agnes de Mille, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, and Robert Joffrey. He choreographed the first full-length modern dance – “O Libertad!” in 1937 – and over 200 other works, received several industry awards, and was even knighted by the King of Denmark for his work with the Royal Danish Ballet. Ted Shawn stood the helm at Jacob’s Pillow until his death in 1972 at the age of 81 [stowitts.org].

Ted Shawn was instrumental in bringing dance – and particularly modern dance – to mainstream America through both the theater and educational settings, and transforming it from merely a form of entertainment and pastime to a stand-alone art. He felt dance was universal and cultivated an eclectic appreciation for all forms; he even developed a curriculum that combined ballet, yoga, Delsartian principles, exotic styles, improvisation, dance history, philosophy, and practical stage instruction [dance-teacher.com]. He acquired acceptance for the male dancer by emphasizing masculine movement and believed in articulating the characteristic differences between the sexes: men to demonstrate a “forward thrust,” move full-bodied and extended into space, whereas women to “movement of a small range,” concave and enclosed [dance-teacher.com]. Nonetheless, Shawn’s legacy as a teacher, writings on the education of dancers, and the international prominence of his choreography speak to a value of diversity, human expression, and the heritage that is American dance.


Professional Lineage: Training and Influences

Ted Shawn; 1930.  Photo: Ruldof Hawkins

Ted Shawn; 1930.  Photo: Rudolf Hawkins

Though the details of Ted Shawn’s early dance training are not specifically outlined in accessible sources, his involvement in the realms of dance and movement research attest to a lifetime of learning.

As a young boy, Shawn lost his mother, brother, and favorite uncle to untimely deaths over the span of just two years [stowitts.org].  Shortly after moving out to Denver, Colorado with his father and attending the Christian ministry, Shawn contracted diphtheria and was forced to leave school.  His recovery was long and arduous, as he required physical therapy to strengthen his body and learn to walk again, but in the later stages he took to dance and never looked back.  Historical accounts cite his first dance experience as ballet class with Hazel Wallack, a former ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera.  At some point he must have received coaching in ballroom because by 1912, he’d headed out to Los Angeles and established a small school with three other dancers.  Performing a predominantly ballroom repertoire, the ensemble gave small concerts and occasional solo performances.  Soon after, he joined forces with Norma Gould and, under the production of the Thomas A. Edison Company, created one of the first dance films, “Dances of the Ages.”  The film dramatized tension between “primitive” and “modern” dancing, a theme that seemed to carry out through the remainder of Shawn’s life [danceheritage.org].  Whether this had an influence on his affinity for ethnic and American forms hasn’t been stated, but one might infer so based on the number of works he created around culturally historic themes… and maybe it was also his fascination with one exotic Ms. Ruth St. Denis that ignited those inspirations.


Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis.  Photo: New York Public Library

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. Photo: New York Public Library

Shawn toured with his small company from 1913 – 1914, performing in 19 U.S. cities before closing in New York where he finally met St. Denis.  At first, she hired him and current partner, Hilda Beyer, to perform ballroom numbers in her shows; Shawn also supplied the act with a variety of other popular forms such as ragtime [pitt.edu].  He and St. Denis were married by August of 1914 and Ted Shawn’s artistic development flourished.  Together, Shawn and St. Denis were pioneering what they called the Principles of Music Visualization and “required dances to make equivalent moves to the structural shape of music itself” [danceheritage.org].  The Denishawn classrooms of 1916 and 1917 were privy to the experimentation and development of this concept, moving not only to the rhythmic base but also the timbres and dynamics of the music.  With a small army of dancers to cultivate, Shawn began establishing his aesthetic and technique – one of which he considered necessary to the evolution of male dancing.  As a prominent young man in American culture, Shawn became a symbol of male fitness earning the informal title of “Most Handsome Man in America,” and semi-nude photos of him appeared in magazines such as National Geographic.  While it is proposed he was a bit of an exhibitionist, often costumed in as little as possible, such early glorifications of his masculinity were probably contributing factors to his insistence later in life that male dancers were not allowed to effeminate. Also, along with Denishawn’s exploration of ancient civilizations, driving his choreography at Jacob’s Pillow to be centered around American Indian, pioneer, Spanish Conquistador, laborer, etc, themes and his style so intensely masculine and boldly muscular.

Video clip of Ted Shawn in “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” from Four Dances Based on American Folk Music; 1931

Ted Shawn in the nude.

Ted Shawn in the nude.  Photo: kuriositas.com

Again, while no explicit statement of training dates or locations were found, Shawn was most definitely trained in Delsartian principles and even wrote a commonly referenced book on the technique entitled “Every Little Movement” in 1954.  Only a blog article [rickontheater.blogspot.com] on François Delsarte himself references that Shawn studied under a woman who had learned from Gustave Delsarte (his son), but evidence of Delsarte principles appear in Shawn’s work – notably, Delsarte’s Law of Correspondence which states: “To each spiritual function responds a function of the body; to each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act.”  In fact, his book Fundamentals of Dance included the Delsarte principle to be expressed in each fundamental training exercise.

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis.  Photo: New York Public Library

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. Photo: New York Public Library

Shawn also found great inspiration in cultures encountered on tour, especially in the far east, and wrote several field reports based on the study of world dance traditions.  Just before the dissolution of the formal Denishawn alliance, Shawn toured solo through Switzerland and Germany where he was exposed to the German expressionist movement.  His life was often influenced by relationships, friendships, and alternative arts (to be expanded upon in a later post) to include Walt Whitman and editor of the Boston Globe, Lucien Price.  Ted Shawn was no stranger to the work ethic of a dancer, nor to the knowledge that dancers, choreographers, have an ever evolving wealth of experiences and influences to draw upon.


The Global Picture: Historical and Social Influences

At the onset of Ted Shawn’s career as a professional performer, he’d been surrounded by the glamorous atmosphere of Los Angeles and formed his own ballroom dance troupe.
But shortly thereafter, having met and worked with Ruth St. Denis, Shawn allowed his choreography and aesthetic to reflect other influences and interests. The two shared a strong religious background (Shawn having studied to be a minister before contracting diphtheria) and co-promoted within each other an appreciation for the eclectic. Shawn’s collaboration with St. Denis demonstrated dance as both a serious art and viable form of entertainment for the masses. The company tours also exposed Shawn to exotic styles and cultural influences from around the world and, over time, led to his belief in the validity of all dance forms – even the development of a revolutionary curriculum combining subjects impactful upon his own career such as:  movement methods, physical and emotional dynamics, history and philosophy, and practical instruction. Throughout the early 1920s, Shawn created numerous work based on his infatuation with historical contexts to include Asian, Native American, and ancient Greek philosophy – even paying homage to multiple art forms such as sculpture in Death of Adnois.  Although they found great success together, building what was noted as the “Denishawn Empire” by author Suzanne Shelton [dance-teacher.com] to include the company, schools, magazine, and compound, their differences made the partnership tumultuous and fragile.  Given the dramatic political shifts resulting from the first and leading into the second World War – xenophobic bias and the onset of the Great Depression – Denishawn’s emerging ethnic restrictions, artistic differences, and unending extramarital affairs contributed to its fold by the early 1930s.

Great Dep

Protest on Oxford Street during the Great Depression. Photo: Associated Press.







The departure was perhaps a blessing in disguise for Shawn, who was able to dedicate himself to legitimizing dance as a masculine form [dance-teacher.com].  Though it is not much of a secret presently, Shawn’s homosexuality was the source of much tension between he and St. Denis, and kept under wraps for much of his life. The marriage between the two had played such an integral role in allowing their empire to feed the evolution of modern dance, epitomized by Agnes de Mille in this quote published in “The Gay and Lesbian Review:” “Parents could send their children to Denishawn because Ruth and Ted were something very rare, they were respectable. They were respectable because they were married.” Social views and opinions were staunchly conservative in the decades preceding the 1960s, providing both the reason for Shawn’s hesitations and yet the motivation for his defiance of certain stigmas. As critic Walter Terry postulated, their divorce and the exposure of Shawn as a gay man would have been disastrous to his reputation. It was, in fact, important that aspect of Shawn’s personal life remain seemingly unrelated to his work as dancers – especially male dancers – were still gaining respect as professionals independent from prostitutes and low social standings. In actuality, however, Shawn’s work was very much related to both his homosexuality and they way it was (or was not) received by society during that period. Great inspiration for his male dance company came from Barton Mumaw, his muse and lover for decades after the company’s end, and his lover after that (ironically having been introduced to Shawn via Mumaw’s own affair) John Christian.

"Pillow Men"  Photo: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives

“Pillow Men.” Photo: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives

Concurrently, he collaborated with several members of the homosexual revolution, participated in Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s reports on American sexual habits, wrote on the relationship between sex and dance (“Sex in the Modern Art of the Dance”), and conversed with eugenics pioneer Havelock Ellis.



Shawn also invested in relationships with professionals of other types: scientists, intellectuals, and artists. During a solo tour through Switzerland and Germany in 1930, Shawn was introduced to German expressionism through dance, music, and art.

pilates at jp from Eric Sanford

Joseph Pilates’ class at Jacob’s Pillow in 1942.          Photo: Eric Sanford

He was an avid reader of Walt Whitman, British poet Edward Carpenter, and friend of Lucien Price – editor and philosopher for The Boston Globe – who actually encouraged Shawn to create an all male dance troupe [berkshireonstage.com].  As acknowledged previously, Shawn promoted a variety of movement styles and diverse educational endeavors. Through his later years, Shawn continued to write, educate, and collaborate with notable names such as Joseph Pilates who would give class at Jacob’s Pillow.

While Shawn’s former female students were making waves in the modern dance community and pioneering feminist ideas, he was busy arguing for the appreciation of men as respectable dance-artists.  Although this polarity reflects the stark sexual bias of the time, Julia Foulkes suggested his push toward strong, athletic movement actually supported the idea of heroism and nationalism – concepts rather popular as America entered the 1940s. In reflection of his contributions to dance with Denishawn (and applicable to his own work), Shawn himself wrote: “We intended to experiment with dance techniques of the past, to recognize dance movements of all ages and lands and to adapt new dance styles as they emerged. We could not have foreseen that our creative achievements would leave an indelible imprint on the history of American dance.” Perhaps Shawn also recognized how the climate, views, and relationships present during this lifetime had left an indelible imprint on his work, his own history.


Impact and Opinion: Connectivity – Relevancy – Legacy

Ted Shawn confronted social norms, roles, and challenged public perceptions of dance
and identity that resonate throughout the community to present day. From the beginning
of his career with Ruth St. Denis, Shawn incorporated ethnic and diverse forms of dance
and style within the Denishawn Company.

Ted Shawn in Osage Pawnee.  Photo: Binder.

Ted Shawn in Osage Pawnee.            Photo: Binder.

Additionally, modern dance had been primarily dominated by women and female form until Ted Shawn ushered in an age of masculine movement. Interestingly enough, however, many of those notable names trained under and danced at the Denishawn school – having studied Shawn’s curriculum, method, and choreography themselves for many years.  With an eye toward academic development, he embraced and published numerous works about somatic and dance technique. Ted Shawn, as a strong advocate of diversity in training, influenced the way in which dancers prepared their minds and bodies for modern movement (despite having actually disliked its classification as such).

Throughout his life, he continued to participate in the cultural context through which
dance and art was received, as well as the receptivity of the public to gender based issues.
His all male dance company revolutionized the roles and manners in which men demonstrated movement, while also being a pioneer for sexual rights – namely male homosexuality.

Not to be forgotten, Shawn was the founder and long-time director of the Jacob’s Pillow
Dance Festival. The Pillow, as it is affectionately called, has had an immeasurable influence
on the dance community, its enrichment, and the opportunity to cultivate growth and value
in the arts that will echo through history.

Ted Shawn and members at Jacob's Pillow.  Photo: NY Public Library.

Ted Shawn and members at Jacob’s Pillow. Photo: NY Public Library.










What I find so interesting about Ted Shawn is a well-rounded quality in that he didn’t excel in any one particular area while falling considerable short in another. He had the business mindedness to foster the Denishawn empire, the academic insight to teach and publish on dance education that produced undeniable results, the artistic creativity to codify masculine movement and choreograph from historical reference on many cultures.

Video clip of Ted Shawn dancing Cosmic Dance of Siva during the Ziegfeld Follies tour; 1928.

Not only did demonstrate the in-applicability of existing gay stigmas with his personal success, he was also one of the first to challenge gender roles defined by classical ballet and helped plant a seed that has allowed dancers, choreographers, artists, and the like to explore the multifaceted environment that is creative art.


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