Ruth St. Denis: High Art in Vaudeville


Ruth St. Denis (born this day in 1879) was an extremely influential American modern dancer, known for her mysticism, spiritualism and Orientalism. She regarded her work with the highest seriousness, but vaudeville was lucrative, so starting in 1906 she alternated performances on the popular stage with appearances at society functions and the like. (Before this, she had performed in David Belasco’s company). Highbrow though she may have been, there is something charmingly, unavoidably American about her. Her Eastern-themed works, for example, were inspired by a picture in an advertisement for Egyptian Deities cigarettes — not decades of scholarly research at some medieval era university.

In 1914 she married her student Ted Shawn and they formed the Denishawn Dancers, both a school and a performing company. Smaller versions of the company toured big time vaudeville. (It is through the Countess that I learned that silent screen star Louise Brooks had started out with this company 1922-24). In 1929 St. Denis broke up both the marriage and the company, which is fine, because vaudeville broke up around that time too. St. Denis continued to teach in the Hollywood area for nearly three more decades. She passed away in 1968.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, and dancer/ choreographers who danced in like Ruth St. Denis, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,


  1. Grand photo of Miss Ruth. At the (then) annual Boston Arts Festival, In the early 1960s I saw her emcee/narrate a live program of performances that illustrated American dance through the ages. She closed the long show with a recreation of her 1906 incense dance to a rousing reception. She was 83, I believe, at the time. I have never wirtnessed any performer or actor with more stage charisma.


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