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
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.
This article is part of Dance: A Spiritual Affair