(originally Ruth Dennis; b Somerville, NJ, 20 Jan. 1879; d Hollywood, Calif., 21 Jul. 1968)
US dancer, teacher, and choreographer who is considered one of the pioneering influences in American modern dance. She began her dance career in the music hall, having studied mime, social dance, and recitation with her mother, but was inspired to create her own oriental-style dance productions in 1904 after seeing a cigarette advertisement depicting the Egyptian goddess Isis. The ethnic authenticity of these works was always dubious; her first ‘Hindu ‘ballet, Radha (1906), was set to music from Delibes's Lakmé, and her style mixed ‘exotic’ elements, such as snaking arm movements and mobile hips, with popular dance steps and gymnastics. She was very successful in both the US and Europe, where she toured for three years and in 1909 she created Egypta for a major US tour and the Japanese ballet O-Mika (1913). Despite her commercial appeal, St Denis aspired to a profound moral seriousness in her work. She once described herself as a ‘rhythmic and impersonal instrument of spiritual revelation’, and many of her works centred on the drama of spiritual awakening or the beauty of the inner life. Her choreography was also an attempt to make an exact translation of music into dance. She was never less than an extremely adroit entertainer, however, using drapes, jewellery, and lighting to create gorgeously memorable stage pictures as well as to flatter her own highly flexible body. In 1914 Ted Shawn became her partner and in 1915 they set up the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles where they trained dancers for their company. Humphrey, Weidman, and Graham all began their careers at Denishawn. Major productions included A Dance Pageant of Egypt, Greece and India (mus. W. Myrowitz, Horst, and A. Nevins, 1916) and their 1918 staging of Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice. Denishawn was disbanded after her separation from Shawn in 1931 but she went on to found the Society of Spiritual Arts and the New York School of Natya with La Meri in 1938. She continued giving recitals and demonstration performances until she was 87. In 1932 she published a volume of poetry, Lotus Light, and in 1939 her autobiography, An Unfinished Life. There are several films about her work, including Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn (NBC, 1958) and the 1941 film Radha, which was edited in 1973. There has been much recent interest in reconstructing her dances.