Mar 23, 2014

Ted Shawn: A Life Devoted to Muscles in Motion

Speaking of modern dance, one of its innovators was Ted Shawn (1891-1972).

He grew up in a conservative Methodist church where dancing was forbidden, and attended the University of Denver, intending to become a minister.  But after a bout of diptheria, he was prescribed dancing to restore his strength, and liked it so much that he continued, in spite of being expelled from college in 1911.









Dancing was not a viable profession for men in the early days of the 20th century. Sergei Diaghilev had just founded the Ballet Russe in 1909.

Determined to do something about the absence of male dancers, Shawn and his wife Ruth St. Denis opened the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles in 1914, and choreographed both male and female dancers.  One of their students was dance great Martha Graham.

Soon Shawn was touring with dances inspired by classical, Egyptian, and Native American traditions, such as Xochitl and  Les Mysteres Dionysiaques.





In 1929, Shawn and Ruth St. Denis divorced, and he established his own all-male troupe, "Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers."

They toured throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe for the next 11 years, with patently homoerotic dances derived from tribal cultures:  The Hopi Indian Dance, The Dyak Spear Dance, The Sinhalese Devil Dance.



Although he wrote a book entitled 10,000 One-Night Stands, Shawn was actually monogamous, with two gay romantic partners: dance great Burton Murnau, left (1931 to 1948) and stage manager John Christian (1949 to his death in 1972).

Shawn also founded the Jacob's Pillow dance school, theater, and library in Beckett, western Massachusetts. It hosts over 80 dance-related events every year, including an annual Dance Festival.

He devoted his life to mentoring male dancers, starting male dance programs in colleges across the United States, and increasing the visibility of the male form.