Ted Shawn

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Ted Shawn with dancer and wife Ruth St. Denis in 1916.
Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis in Egyptian Ballet, ca. 1910.

Ted Shawn (21 October 1891 — 9 January 1972), originally Edwin Myers Shawn, was one of the first notable male pioneers of American modern dance. Along with creating Denishawn with former wife Ruth St. Denis he is also responsible for the creation of the well known all-male company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. With his innovative ideas of masculine movement he is one of the most influential choreographers and dancers of his day. He is also the founder and creator of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, and 'was knighted by the King of Denmark for his efforts on behalf of the Royal Danish Ballet'.[1]

Ted Shawn and the creation of Denishawn[edit]

Ted Shawn was born in Kansas City, Missouri on October 21, 1891.[2] Originally intending to become a minister of religion, he attended the University of Denver. There he caught diphtheria, which led him to take up dance in 1910 to regain his muscle strength. Shawn's dancing was discouraged by the University, which still had a Methodist affiliation, and was the cause of his expulsion the following year.

Shawn did not realize his true potential as an artist until marrying Ruth St. Denis on August 13, 1914.[3] St. Denis served not only as partner but an extremely valuable creative outlet to Shawn. Soon after their marriage the couple opened the first Denishawn School in Los Angeles, California, where they were able to choreograph and stage many of their famous vaudeville pieces.[4] A very famous piece of advice that Shawn used to give to his dancers was "When in doubt, twirl."[5][6]

The following year Shawn launched a cross-country tour with his dance partner, Norma Gould, and their Interpretive Dancers. Notable performances choreographed by him during Denishawn’s 17-year run include Julnar of the Sea, Xochitl and Les Mysteres Dionysiaques.[7] The school and company went on to produce such influential dancers as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.[8]

Technique and Style[edit]

Together, Shawn and Ruth St. Denis established the principle of Music Visualization in modern dance —- a concept that called for movement equivalents to the timbres, dynamics, and structural shapes of music in addition to its rhythmic base.

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers[edit]

Due to marital problems of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and financial difficulties Denishawn concluded in 1929. Consequently, Shawn went on to form an all male dance company made up of athletes he taught at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Shawn's mission in creating this company was to fight for acceptance of the American male dancer and to bring awareness of the art form from a male perspective.

The all male company was based out of a farm that Shawn purchased near his hometown Lee, Massachusetts. On July 14, 1933, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers had their premier performance at Shawn's farm, which would later be known as Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Shawn produced some of his most innovate and controversial choreography to date with this company such as Ponca Indian Dance, Sinhalse Devil Dance, Maori War Haka, Hopi Indian Eagle Dance, Dyak Spear Dances and Kinetic Molpai. Through these creative works Shawn showcased athletic and masculine movement that soon would gain popularity. The company performed in the United States and Canada, touring more than 750 cities, in addition to international success in London and Havana. Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers concluded at Jacob's Pillow on August 31, 1940 with a homecoming performance.

During the years of the company, Shawn's love for the relationships created by the men in his dances soon translated into love between himself and one of his company members, Barton Mumaw (1912-2001), which lasted from 1931 to 1948. One of the leading stars of the company, Barton Mumaw would emerge onto the dance industry and be considered "the American Nijinsky." While with Shawn, Mumaw began a relationship with a John Christian, a stage manager for the company. Instead of exploding the domesticity, Mumaw introduced Shawn to Christian. Later, Shawn formed a partnership with John Christian, with whom he stayed from 1949 until his death in 1972.[9]

Creation of Jacob’s Pillow[edit]

With this new company came the creation of Jacob's Pillow, a dance school, retreat, and theater. Shawn and his men used this space as a place to hold teas as well as a place to perform. These teas soon transformed into the festival that is so widely known to this day, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.[10] Shawn also used this new space to develop his choreography and teach. Jacob’s Pillow has since become one of the largest and most respected dance festivals, with performances and guests from some of the most prominent companies in the world. Having a place where anybody could come and show their work without restrictions or bias is something that Shawn fought for and gladly wanted to share with others. The creation of Jacob’s Pillow has allowed this to happen .[11] Along with Jacob's Pillow came the opening of The School of Dance for Men which is when he met his accomplishment of having male dancing making its way into colleges nationwide. Being able to have his work and stylized male choreography be respected so much to where it was then introduced to universities was a huge step for Shawn. Shawn made his last appearance on stage in the Ted Shawn Theater at Jacob’s Pillow in his performance of Siddhas of the Upper Air where he reunited with St. Denis. Shawn and St. Denis danced on their 50th anniversary at the Casino in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Ted Shawn resting upon the Jacob’s Pillow Rock

Saratoga Springs is now the home of the National Museum of Dance, the world's only museum dedicated to professional dance. Shawn was inducted into the museum's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987. Shawn was still teaching classes at Jacob’s Pillow just months before his death at the age of 80.[12]

The following quote is attributed to Ted Shawn: "I believe that dance communicates man’s deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written." And Cynthia Nolan, in her book Outback, notes that, "...Ted Shawn, the American choreographer, who visited Arnhem Land, wrote that there he had seen male dancers second to none living."[13]

In 1965 he was a Heritage Award recipient of the National Dance Association.


Ted Shawn's nine published books provided a foundation for Modern Dance, and particularly Fundamentals of a Dance Education, Dance We Must and Every Little Movement.[14]

  • (1920) Ruth St. Denis: Pioneer and Prophet
  • (1926) The American Ballet
  • (1929) Gods Who Dance
  • (1935) Fundamentals of a Dance Education
  • (1940) Dance We Must
  • (1944) How Beautiful Upon the Mountain
  • (1954) Every Little Movement: a Book About Francois Delsarte
  • (1959) Thirty-three Years of American Dance
  • (1960) One Thousand and One Night Stands (autobiography, with Gray Poole)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ted Shawn, Jacob's Pillow Dance, retrieved 28 July 2013 
  2. ^ [1], Birth data: Astrodatabank.
  3. ^ Christena L. Schlundt, "Shawn, Ted", in International Encyclopedia of Dance ,vol. 5, ed. Selma J. Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 583.
  4. ^ Glynis Benbow-Niemer, "Shawn, Ted", in International Dictionary of Modern Dance ed. Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf (Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1998), 716.
  5. ^ Stephen Schiff (1992) Edward Gorey and the Tao of Nonsense in The New Yorker, November 9, p.94 quote:

    You know, Ted Shawn, the choreographer--he used to say, 'When in doubt, twirl.' Oh, I do think that's such a great line.

  6. ^ Greg Haymes Ex-maniac Natalie Merchant's Mesmerizing Vocals Hypnotic as Ever in Albany Knickerbocker News, November 11, 1994
  7. ^ Christena L. Schlundt, "Shawn, Ted", 585.
  8. ^ Christena L. Schlundt, "Shawn, Ted", 584.
  9. ^ Julia L. Foulkes, Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 85-86.
  10. ^ Julia L. Foulkes,Modern Bodies, 84-85.
  11. ^ Barbara N. Cohen-Stratyner, Biographical Dictionary of Dance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1982), 811.
  12. ^ Glynis Benbow-Niemer, "Shawn, Ted", 716.
  13. ^ Nolan, Cynthia, Outback and Beyond, Angus & Robertson Sydney, 1994, p. 50 and p . 51
  14. ^ Gayle Kassing History of dance: an interactive arts approach, pp.187-9

Further reading[edit]

  • Katherine S. Dreier and Ralph Hawkins (1933) Shawn the Dancer, published in Berlin by Drei Masken Verlag
  • Walter Terry (1976) Ted Shawn: The Father of Modern Dance, New York, Dial Press, ISBN 0-8037-8557-7
  • Shelton, Suzanne. Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
  • Stephanie Jordan (1984) Ted Shawn's Music Visualizations, in Dance Chronicle, Vol. 7, No. 1 1984
  • Leonetta Bentivoglio (1985) Danza Contemporanea, published in Milan by Longanesi
  • Glynis Benbow-Niemer (1998) Shawn, Ted, in International Dictionary of Modern Dance ed. Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf , Detroit, St. James Press
  • Julia L. Foulkes (2002) Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism From Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press

External links[edit]