I’m returning to my Avant-Exposure series with a summer sensation that I always find myself drawn to since I first discovered her history, blazing across my dance textbooks, when I first started community college: Ruth St. Denis. This photo by Aura Hartwig from 1906 is lesser known than the more famous, clearer one seen in the first section of dance history books, the spinning silk skirt and encrusted jewelry lining her arms and face. I choose this photo because I believe her pure essence is captured in this moment of blurry bliss, the turn.
Turns are essential to all dance forms, and especially prominent in classical Indian dance. Ruth St. Denis embodied the American seeking divine worship in dance, rather than the divine filtering through the dancer. She was the action, the inspiration, and the moments of her own dance.
And although she did come to dilute some dance forms for ancient cultures she could never truly and fully understand in one lifetime, she was the bride of divides, traveling to the cultural region of dance styles and forms that spoke to her and sharing them with Western audiences.
From a wonderful article about St. Denis and Indian dance by Dr. Kusum Pant Joshi, London, “St. Denis’ Indian dance pieces were attempts to convey Hindu philosophical ideas to Western audiences in a manner that would be intelligible to them. These were not authentic Indian dances, as were those of the bayaderes, but were inspired by Indian themes and included the sinuous and rippling arm motions and graceful body movements and postures of classical Indian dances.”
Today, we lack any real St. Denis type dancers, mainly because the world is so entirely open and known through technological exploration. We have Youtube and Facebook and Instagram to act as tiny St. Denis interactions into cultural dances but through mystical filters and accounts.
It’s still true though that even in the era of information and online exchange, the only way to know and be part of different cultural dancing history is to travel there, or take workshops under someone with the proper lineage.
Never consider yourself an expert of this form or that until you’ve taken the time to travel to the point of origin, talk to the locals and originators or students with lineage. Ballet students, go to Italy and France and England! Modern dance students, experience Jacob’s Pillow and California and NYC! Butoh followers, go to Japan and Seattle! And on and on.
All dance forms have a heritage that must be respected and understood by students and teachers in order to continue with genuine devotion and reverence.
St. Denis was one of the greatest followers of global dance heritages and worshipers of deep, transcendent movement.
Read more about Ruth St. Denis: