Ruth St. Denis (January 20, 1879 – July 21, 1968) was a modern dance pioneer, introducing eastern ideas into the art. She was the co-founder of the American Denishawn School of Dance and the teacher of several notable performers.
Ruth Denis was raised on a small farm in New Jersey, where she was drilled by her mother in physical exercises developed by François Delsarte. This was the beginning of St. Denis's dance training and was instrumental in developing her technique later in life. In 1894, after years of practicing Delsarte poses, she debuted as a skirt dancer for Worth’s Family Theater and Museum. From this modest start, she progressed to touring with an acclaimed producer and director, David Belasco, under whom her stage name, “St. Denis”, was created. While touring in Belasco's production of Madame DuBarry in 1904 her life was changed. She was at a drugstore with another member of Belasco’s company in Buffalo, New York, when she saw a poster advertising Egyptian Deities cigarettes. The poster portrayed the Egyptian goddess Isis enthroned in a temple; this image captivated St. Denis on the spot and inspired her to create dances that expressed the mysticism that the goddess’s image conveyed. From then on, St. Denis was immersed in Oriental philosophies.
In 1905, St. Denis left Belasco's company to begin her career as a solo artist. The first piece that resulted from her interest in the Orient was Radha. This piece was created to tell the story of Krishna and his love for a mortal maid. Radha was originally performed in 1909 to music from Léo Delibes' opera Lakmé. This piece was a celebration of the five senses and appealed to a contemporary fascination with the Orient. Although her choreography was not culturally accurate or authentic, it was expressive of the themes that St. Denis perceived in Oriental culture and highly entertaining to contemporary audiences. St. Denis believed dance to be a spiritual expression and her choreography reflected this idea.
In 1911, a young dancer named Ted Shawn saw St. Denis perform in Denver; it was artistic love at first sight. In 1914, Shawn applied to be her student, and soon became her artistic partner and husband. Together they founded Denishawn, the “cradle of American modern dance.” One of her more famous pupils was Martha Graham. Other notable dancers such as Doris Humphrey, Lillian Powell, Evan-Burrows Fontaine and Charles Weidman also studied at Denishawn. Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and the future silent film star Louise Brooks all performed as dancers with the Denishawn company. At Denishawn, St. Denis served as inspiration to her young students, while Shawn taught the technique classes. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were also instrumental in creating the legendary dance festival, Jacob's Pillow.
Although Denishawn had crumbled by 1940, St. Denis continued to dance, teach and choreograph independently as well as in collaboration with other artists. In 1938 St. Denis founded Adelphi University's dance program, one of the first dance departments in an American university. It has since become a cornerstone of Adelphi's Department of Performing Arts. For many years St. Denis taught dance at a studio in Hollywood, near the Hollywood Bowl. In 1963 she teamed with Raymond D. Bowman to bring the first full-length Balinese Shadow Puppet play to the United States. The performance was held at her studio and lasted more than 8 hours.
Ruth St. Denis died of a heart attack in 1968, aged 89 at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles, California.