The Winged Life

He who bends to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
William Blake

Some years ago, I studied the lives of three well-known dancers/couples who danced in the early to mid-twentieth century and were all students of Christian Science which, at that time, was a thriving and innovative worldwide phenomenon. Here are the resulting articles.


Ruth St. Denis

We should realize in a vivid and revolutionary sense that we are not in our bodies but our bodies are in us. Ruth St. Denis

When Ted Shawn first saw Ruth St. Denis perform in 1911, he was enthralled. He was nineteen; a student fresh from religious studies and a ballroom dancer. He looked at the famous, thirty-two-year-old dancer with adoration. She combined his two great loves; dance and spirituality. Little did he realize that three years later, he would see her again, she would employ him to perform ballroom dancing routines in her shows, and, within the year, they would be married.

Spirituality and dance were one and the same thing for Ruth. In the summer of 1903 when Ruth was twenty-four, she picked up one of her mother’s books. It was Science and Health, the foundational text of Christian Science by Mary Baker Eddy. Mary was a force to be reckoned with – brave, intelligent, and radical. She was a woman unto Ruth’s liking. However, unlike Mary, Ruth was plagued with personal insecurities which created many emotionally-turbulent situations throughout her life.

The first six weeks after reading Science and Health were a turning point of wonderful and beautiful magnitude for the young Ruth and it laid the foundations of her relentless spiritual longing. She said,

I had never been even dimly aware of the tremendous new world that had now opened before me. All the hours I could spare were spent in reading this book or in going for long walks by myself. I seemed to have joined that class of thinkers who are in the dawn of ideas, eager for a blaze of light. To sense the power of thought as a vast discovery of the soul occupied me for long hours. (I was) filled with wonder and a strange inward vibration which was unlike anything I had ever known before. This definite condition of spiritual ecstasy remained with me for some weeks and then gradually faded, and left as a residue a love of spiritual things and a realization of metaphysical values which has been with me always. Ruth St. Denis

Ruth always packed the book in her suitcase, along with the Bhagavad Gita and her Ralph Waldo Emerson books, for her trips. She became a life-long follower of Christian Science and based one of her teaching groups on the principles of the book. She applied for formal membership of the church on two separate occasions but was, unfortunately, rejected. Even then, the church had the markings of its future downfall – rules and regulations.

Denishawn – the Child of Ruth and Ted’s Union

All that is important is this one moment in movement. Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused. Martha Graham (a student and teacher at Denishawn before her own significant dance career.)

Denishawn, named after both, was the child of Ruth and Ted’s union. It was a performing company, a top dancing school, and a cultural icon of the day. It was a child they nurtured for sixteen years together. Like all good parents, they both played their part. Ruth was the spiritual and aesthetic inspiration. It was she who fascinated audiences although, later on, Ted became one of the most important male dancers of his era.

Ruth was not good with money and could be emotionally restless and reckless. Ted tended to be more grounded. He maintained the structure and routine of their lives so that their company and school could continue to function. He was responsible for their financial well-being. After Ted moved away, Ruth had financial problems for the rest of her life. It was an area she could not seem to master.

Ted and Ruth were genuine friends. They had a true spiritual, intellectual, and physical compatibility with each other. However, they were also genuine enemies. Both were very ambitious and they would often compete with each other with disastrous consequences.

Erotic, Exotic, Esoteric

img_4664
Ruth St. Denis

You and I are but specks of that rhythmic urge which is Brahma, which is Allah, which is God. Ruth St. Denis

Ruth’s free-spirited love of the Divine and, at the same time, honest and uncensored love of the human was the hallmark of her dancing. This combination made for a dynamic, captivating individual. Her dancing was a combination of raw physicality, exotic themes (based mainly on Egypt, India, and Japan), and uplifting and beautiful spiritual treasures of choreography. She was held in awe by her many fans. They were, sometimes, left speechless after her shows. Some were speechless for other reasons: shock, confusion, indignation, and offence. One of her offences was to dance barefoot. Those close to her loved her with a protective passion. She was a brave dancer.

Ruth and Ted remained married for more than fifty years but the last three decades were spent apart and both were involved with a range of other relationships including, for Ted, a number of gay relationships. They continued to dance with each other, on and off, even into Ruth’s eighties. Ruth’s relationships tended to be affairs of the heart, more than affairs of the body. She longed for emotional and spiritual closeness. She was frequently criticised for her many and varied relationships, often, with much younger men. As she possessed a magnetic attractor field for men, it was a rather tempting way for Ruth to try and allay her insecurities (with little success, as one would expect).

Ted told Ruth, much later in their lives, that their marriage had become an archetypal form of spiritual love to the general population, that it had a special meaning for other people, and that it was not for either of them to destroy that even if they had not lived together for many years. Some wondered if Ted’s concern was more for his own vulnerable position as a bisexual man in that day and age. For whatever reason, they never did divorce.


Veloz and  Yolanda

img_4671Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza appeared on the cover of the 1939 Time magazine as the Greatest Dancing Couple. Both were Christian Scientists at a time when Christian Science was at its height. Yolanda had a natural, humble quietness when she was off-stage. She normally preferred plain day clothes because she said that pretty clothes were for performance. On stage, Yolanda wore delicate and exquisite dresses which were designed by Frank. She carried a knitted bag with her wherever she went. It contained two books – the Bible and also Science and Health. In this way, her faith was always close at hand. Yolanda’s strong faith helped her with the normal demands of life and the heavy demands of being constantly in the limelight. The daily reminder of simple, powerful spiritual principles was a protection from the common pitfalls of fame, such as addiction, depression, mental instability, and an ego gone crazy.

Frank and Yolanda’s four children were called the million-dollar babies. That was how much money each baby cost their parents in lost revenue when Yolanda was pregnant and then attending to a newborn. It was a lot of money in the 1940s. However, money is no protection from the difficulties of life and sadness was no stranger to the Veloz family. Two of the children died in tragic circumstances in their twenties. Also, after several decades of an outstanding partnership, Frank and Yolanda’s schools started closing and their marriage ended. Frank married another dancer, twenty years younger than himself. An entity in her own right, she is still young and dancing today in her mid-nineties. In spite of the tides of life, things of beauty and substance remain. Death cannot take away the reality of another’s ongoing existence. Divorce cannot annihilate all that is truly good in the forging of a human bond.

When Yolanda and Frank danced, they would prepare themselves for the show by cultivating a genuine sense of love and connection with their audience.

Frank would walk up and down smoking a cigarette while Yolanda would do a couple of bends to each side. But the real warm-up was psychological. About five minutes before the performance, the area would be cleared so they could concentrate. She would think about dancing with each man, he would think about dancing with each woman in the audience and they revved themselves up with love. When they went on stage this love permeated them and the audience. Elizabeth Talbot-Martin and William Teaford.

Yolanda was very instinctive when she entered her performing persona on stage. She intuitively and fully gave herself over to that which was much bigger than her normal self. She returned to the other smaller self after performing. Her son said of her,

Indeed, my mother did most resoundingly not claim the slightest authorship of what she more or less automatically did. She merely gave herself unto an enigmatic power that was infinitely greater in all matters than any individual ego could hope to master, simply letting IT instead master her. Guy Veloz

Frank and Yolanda, like most dance couples, often, fought when practising. Much later, Frank confided to his son that it was difficult to get his wife to practice at all. Nevertheless, when they were performing, all that melted into nothingness.

It was total co-operation; not competition. Technique was forgotten under a spell of dreamtime. Guy Veloz

Frank told his son that in spite of the frustrations of practice, he always remained in awe of the spontaneous way in which Yolanda danced which complimented his more linear way of thinking. Frank and Yolanda were self-taught dancers as neither of them was able to afford dance lessons when they were younger.

As their show visited different venues, Frank and Yolanda would sometimes have to deal with inadequate orchestras. Although Frank would tend to get angry, Yolanda had made an agreement with him that they were to see their orchestras as wonderful. In true Christian Science fashion, choosing to see only the essential, perfect, spiritual nature of all things, she would smile at them with appreciation. Suddenly, and almost miraculously, the less-than-fabulous orchestras would have a tendency to become their much better and more fabulous selves.

Frank, for his part, saw the audience as one single, breathing entity which it was his mission to unite. He would ask the audience if they wished to help out in his and Yolanda’s next routine. The orchestra would stop. The audience would then sing, hum, or whistle the melody of songs known to just about everyone at the time. The lights would be turned down low and Frank and Yolanda would float majestically to the human-voice orchestra, while the hugely enthusiastic audience would be overcome with a feeling of inclusive love.


Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire’s famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers, was a very devout Christian Scientist for her whole life. She even attended the same branch church as the Veloz’s.

The marriage of Ginger’s parents ended when she was not much more than a baby. Not long after, young Ginger was kidnapped by her father. At first, Ginger’s mother did not know who had taken the child. With the help of a Christian Science practitioner, Ginger was found and returned home. In a rather dramatic fashion, her mother travelled to Mexico alone, grabbed the child from her husband’s relatives and, with the help of strangers, managed to secretly board a train and return safely to her own home. This was the time before the family law court, equal rights for parents, and strict legal requirements about child custody. After this ordeal, Ginger’s mother developed a deep faith in Christian Science which was passed onto her future famous daughter. The two developed a very strong bond cemented by the possibility of early loss.

Later, Ginger’s mother married a man named John Rogers. After healing from a near-fatal illness through his wife’s devoted prayer, he also became a Christian Scientist. Ginger said that their home was a very happy one and that all three of them were looking in the same spiritual direction, growing together, and loving each other.

Ginger was later a war bride. Naturally, there was a great need for constant prayer to overcome the debilitating fear that comes with wartime. Ginger would take her young husband to church with her when he was home and they would try to cope with the tremendous challenges of war as best they could from a spiritual perspective. She wanted them both to stay close to God.

In summarizing her life, Ginger spoke heartfully about that which was most important to her – her marriages, her mother, and her faith in God. Ginger was married five times, although, she said that she always yearned for a long, happy marriage with one person and that she loved being married. She enjoyed the security of marriage and was happiest when caring for and loving her mate. She also had a deep appreciation for her mother. Ginger’s mother was her rock of stability and the core of unconditional love throughout her highly accomplished life. Above all, Ginger had a great appreciation for her religion and the spiritual support and protection it provided her through her long and very public career.

Of all the many gifts bestowed on me, there is one I treasure above all others–my dear mother. Beyond that, however, is something far greater than success or even family ties–my religion. I owe my health and happiness to it. Without it, I would not have had such wonderful and devoted friends and I couldn’t have become the dancer, actress, and person that I am. Ginger Rogers

From Dance: A Spiritual Affair

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