Chapter 2: The Solo Dancers

Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968)

Ruth Dennis was born in 1879 on a New Jersey farm. The daughter of a strong-willed and highly educated women ( Ruth Emma Dennis was a physician by training), St. Denis was encouraged to study dance from an early age. Her early training included Delsarte technique, ballet lessons with the Italian ballerina Maria Bonfante, social dance forms and skirt dancing. Ruth began her professional career in New York City in 1892, where she worked as a skirt dancer in a dime museum and in vaudeville houses. Dime museums featured "leg dancers" (female dancers whose legs were visible under their short skirts) in brief dance routines. St. Denis was probably required to perform her routine as many as eleven times a day.

Ruth St. Denis and Belasco's "Zaza"

In 1898, the young vaudeville dancer was noticed by David Belasco, a well-known and highly successful Broadway producer and director. He hired her to perform with his large company as a featured dancer, and was also responsible for giving her the stage name "St. Denis." Under Belasco's influence, Ruthie Dennis became Ruth St. Denis, toured with his production of "Zaza" around the United States and in Europe, and was exposed to the work of several important European artists, including the Japanese dancer Sado Yacco and the great English actress, Sarah Bernhardt.

Egyptian Inspiration

St. Denis' artistic imagination was ignited by these artists. She became very interested in the dance/drama of Eastern cultures( ), including those of Japan, India and Egypt. She was also influenced by Bernhardt's melodramatic acting style, in which the tragic fate of her characters took center stage. After 1900, St. Denis began formulating her own theory of dance/drama based on the dance and drama techniques of her early training, her readings into philosophy, scientology and the history of ancient cultures, and the work of artists like Yacco and Bernhardt. In 1904, during one of her tours with Belasco, she saw a poster of the goddess Isis in an ad for Egyption for Egyption Deities cigarettes. The image of the goddess sparked her imagination and she began reading about Egypt, and then India.


By 1905, St. Denis left Belasco's company to begin a 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. "Radha" was an attempt to translate St. Denis' understanding of Indian culture and mythology to the American dance stage. As this publicity photograph illustrates, St. Denis surrounded her Indian maiden with the symbols for the 5 senses: bells for hearing; flowers for smelling; wine for tasting; jewels for seeing; and kisses of the palm for touching. The men sitting around her are Indian immigrants living in the then flourishing Coney Island Hindi community.

St. Denis' Society Notice

As a solo artist, St. Denis was quickly discovered by a society woman, Mrs. Orlando Rouland. With the aid of her wealthy patron, she began performing "Radha" at private matinees in respectable Broadway theatres. The following description appeared in The New York Times on March 25, 1906 after a performance at the Hudson Theatre: "Society has discovered something new under the limelight. Out of the jaws of vaudeville a group of New York women who still keep a weary eye out for up-to-date novelties, have snatched a turn which they hope to make more or less an artistic sensation.

St. Denis in Europe

Like Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan before her, St. Denis felt that Europe might have more to offer her. She left with her mother for London in 1906, and traveled the continent performing her "translations" until 1909, when she returned to give a series of well-received concerts in New York City and on tour in the United States. During the next five years she continued to tour, building her reputation as an exotic dancer with an artistic bent, a "classic dancer" in the same catagory as Isadora Duncan. These two artists were, however, inherently different in their approach to the solo dance. According to St. Denis' biographer Suzanne Shelton, Duncan sought "the Self in the Universe," and St. Denis sought "the Universe in the Self." For St. Denis, the exotic worlds she intended to interpret could be seen from the vantage point of her body.

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

After 1911, the vogue for solo dancers on the professional stage died down. To support herself, St. Denis often gave private lessons to society women, including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In 1912, St. Denis' major patron, Henry Harris, died on the Titanic. In serious financial trouble, St. Denis went back to the studio and came up with a new exotic dance, this time on a Japanese theme. "O-Mika" was more culturally authentic than her other 'translations' but it was not a success. Around 1913, St. Denis began adding other performers to her touring productions. In 1914 she hired Ted Shawn, a stage dancer with strong Delsartean leanings, and his partner, Hilda Beyer, to perform ballroom numbers. St. Denis continued to perform her solo "translations" while Shawn brought a range of popular dance forms, from ragtime to tangos, into the act. Soon after, St. Denis and Shawn became dance partners and lovers, and St. Denis' career as a solo artist was over.

Ruth St. Denis' Innovations:

  1. Ruth St. Denis was the first American dancer to incorporate the traditions and practices of the vaudeville stage into the world of serious concert dance.
  2. Her solo "translations" were unique combinations of dramatic mise en scene and contemporary dance steps that successfully combined theatrical and concert dance traditions.

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For Russian version of this page, translated by Martha Ruszkowski, please click here.