The Male Dance In America: The Original Catalyst

Time was when, though forward looking all right, America preferred to have no truck with the male dancer. And, as it came about, it was left to one man, single-handed and through his singular grit and determination, to turn the tables. This is the story of that man.

The story is of much relevance to India, too. For it is this man, a newcomer in dance, who first showed the Indian cognoscenti of the time what innovating dances for the stage was all about. And that was before India's own Uday Shankar, Tagore, Ram Gopal, Rukmini Devi and other trailblazers stepped into the picture. Though he had practically no experience, the dances he dreamed up were surprisingly well-devised and fullbodied, and these included numbers on Indian themes that reflected a maturity truly amazing.

It was in Kansas City, Missouri, that, on 21 October 1891, Ellsworth Shawn and Mary Lee Booth were blessed with their second son. The boy was christened Edwin Myers, but fondly called Ted. The nickname stuck to him for life, for he came always to be known as Ted Shawn. Because of the conformist background of the family, he was admitted to a theology course to prepare him to become a preacher. He was growing up to become a strapping young man when, at the age of 18, he was flattened by a nasty attack of diptheria. He recovered from the illness, yes, but, thanks to the overdose of serum, was virtually paralysed from the hips down.

Obliged to remain glued to the bed, Ted spent his days despairing, and brooding. And then, on a hunch, he thought of taking up dancing, wondering if it would help reactivate his immobilised limbs. Only one thing scared him, and that was the fact dancing by the male was considered sissy and he did not want to become the butt of any jeering.

But soon enough he plucked courage, and took the plunge. He started with simple ballroom steps and glides, unaided. It seemed to work. He persevered. In a few months he could not only walk but also dance in his own untried way with ease.

 The miracle humbled him. He bowed before the efficacy and power of dancing. And now craved to give it something in return. He did. He brought dignity to the male dancer.

Selecting a group of young men with sinewy bodies, he prepared a series of dances glorifying the beauty of the male form. With these he toured extensively, before long totally erasing the long-held disdain for male dancers. His became the first and only all-male dance company in America. But he went a step further. Through precept and persuasion he made the dance acceptable as a subject in its own right in universities across the country.

Ted Shawn was just embarking on his life as a dancer when, in 1914, he saw Ruth St. Denis perform. An extraordinary woman, an eccentric and a rebel of sorts, he had made her debut as a dancer in 1906 with a whole repertoire, all born of her own imagination and inspiration. These included several compositions with an Indian slant, carrying titles like Radha, Nautch Dance, The Cobras, The Incense, The Yogi, and Dance of the Black and Gold Sari. Shawn was completely won over by her brand of mysticism and by her sense of theatre. He convinced himself he had found a kindred spirit.

She responded. The two got married the same year. Their honeymoon slipped into a nine-month performance tour. Subsequently, to parade their "oneness", in 1920 they founded Denishawn, a school of dance, coupled with a dance company called Denishawn Dancers.

Denishawn continued until 1932, during which time it trained countless dancers while the company undertook tours over and over. The most memorable tour was of the Orient. This began in 1925, lasted 25 months, covered Japan, China, the Malay Peninsula, Burma, India, Ceylon, Java, Cambodia and the Phillipines. This became the first occasion for a group of American dancers to have ever toured Asia. They performed every night, with a matinee thrown in at times, except when they were travelling. Wherever they went, the Shawn duo made it a point to hunt for local dancers and dance teachers, and wherever feasible they saw the dance and took lessons.

As for India, the only word the Shawns knew of its dance vocabulary was Nautch. Hence, soon after arriving in Calcutta, their first halt, they started making enquiries about Nautch dancers. But only at the end of their 18-day stay in Calcutta did they succeed, that too through the American Consulate. As Ted Shawn explained to me later: "During the British period, dancing was frowned upon, due to mistaken norms of prudery, and all the Indians we met were embarrassed when we mentioned the word Nautch to them."

The Shawns were very fortunate, however, for they were able to see two of the star performers of the day, Bachwa Jan and Malka Jan, both professing Kathak. Watching Bachwa Jan, St. Denis could not contain herself. She got up and, as if in a trance, started improvising to the same music. This delighted Bachwa Jan so much that she unfastened the anklebells she was wearing and grinningly proferred them to St. Denis.

In Calcutta, Denishawn performed at Empire Theatre. Two of her favourite items that St. Denis included in the tour were Nautch Dance and Dance of the Black and Gold Sari, but now, in India, she was very reluctant to offer these. But as it turned out, the two dances proved the most smashing, not only in Calcutta but wherever they were staged in India.

Shawn told me this was due to the showmanship inherent in the St. Denis presentation. He felt that this instantly put her work several notches above the art of the native dancing girls which, though assuredly tops in technique and skill, lacked the finesse and the finish that audiences of the kind they encountered would have loved to savour. After Calcutta it was Bombay, and then Karachi, at both of which places they could see no dancing, for no one could arrange any.

In Quetta, they had the chance to sample the tradition of young Muslim boys masquerading as girls and dancing something akin to Kathak. In Lahore they had the good luck to meet Pandit Hira Lai, the leading Kathak dancer, who not only demonstrated the subtleties of the style but also taught them the Mohr Nautch, or the Peacock Dance.

They drew a blank, again, in Delhi. They now had a week's break efore proceeding South, and they decided to spend this in Chota Nagpur, in Bihar. The 'Rajah of the Santals' had seen them perform in Calcutta and extended them an invitation, that is why. A delirious week it proved to be, what with watching the tribals dance, picking up some of their patterns, and even dancing with them.

They next went to Darjeeling, where, at the Bhutia Monastery, they managed to see some Tibetan dances and learn some of the basics. In the South their visit extended to only two places: Madura, where they were to marvel at the felicity of the celebrated devadasi Kamalambal, and Hyderabad. As will be seen, the Indian tour afforded the Shawns a variety of experience, enriching, exciting, every performance. After the last appearance, word was recieved by the Shawns that the Nizam would be happy to recieve them at the Palace. They were recieved, and after the customary round of courtesies, they were presented they knew not what, cocooned in purple velvet with flaxen tassels to boot. The Shawn hearts went pit-a-pat, crazy with visions of priceless pearls, encrusted gold, oodles of riches. But what did they find? A book of poems by the Nizam himself, and in Urdu! A happy fallout of the Indian tour was that, as the Shawns went along seeing more and more of the country if not also of its dance, newer ideas came to them for composing dances with an Indian bias. The ideas matured and were put into effect after their return to the U.S. The results were thoroughly flattering. Though Ted Shawn had attempted an Indian dance, which he called Hindu Warrior as early as 1914, and another on God Krishna later, his most significant piece came after the visit to India. This was The Cosmic Dance of Siva. For this he had a pedestal and arch made to fit him, to live up to the image of the Dancing Siva in the public mind. As the composition had meant a lot to him, I once wrote asking him to say something more about it. He answered:

"My interest in all Asiatic dance had been inspired by Ruth St. Denis, whom I met and married in 1914, after which we founded thebewildering, moving, even hilarious. But it was Hyderabad that gave them something they never tired of recounting. They had performed there for five nights, and the Nizam and his courtiers had attended Denishawn School and Denishawn Dancers, which toured the world for 17 years, and made touring records not equalled before nor matched since. In India in 1926, I had the inspiration to create a dance on the theme of the Nataraja— here also I made no attempt to present this as true, authentic Hindu dancing; it was a creation of my own, using a technical vocabulary based on Hindu technique, and pictorially related to the many bronze images of Siva as Nataraja. I had the good fortune of the friendship of Boshi Sen, who helped me enormously in many ways in costuming and in getting the platform and ring of flame carved in India. This was of silver, acquired in Delhi. Lily Strickland, an American woman who had lived in India for 10 years, and was already an established composer in America before she first went to India, composed a magnificent score for this dance. It was a great success, and was performed by me many thousands of times all over the world on subsequent tours. The picture I am enclosing for you shows how I looked in my Cosmic Dance of Siva (photographed in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1927). [See back cover]. While I have done other dances related to India this was my major work." On another occasion, when writing to me, Shawn recalled of The Cosmic Dance of Siva: "I never gave a performance without consciously asking Siva to take possession of my body." Imagine!

 In 1932 Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis parted company. The same year he founded a centre for adult education in dance which he called the University of the Dance, and also launched the Jacob's Pillow Festival, which in no time became a major annual international dance event. For the first seven years (1933 to 1939) the performances were exclusively by the Pillow's own team, billed as 'Shawn and His Men Dancers'. Over the years, several American dancers into Indian styles took classes. These included La Meri, Nala Najan and Matteo. Dancers from India too taught, gave lectures and performed, among them Ram Gopal, Rukmini Devi, Balasaraswati, Indrani Rehman, Priyagopal Sana, Anand Shivaram and Ritha Devi.

Because of his unmatched work and contribution, Ted Shawn came to be acknowledged as the Father of Modern American Dance. Indeed the three key figures representing the evolution and growth of Modern dance in America Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidmen were initially products of the Shawn system. Well has it been said that there is not a Modern dancer in the world today who cannot trace his or her pedagogical heritage to Shawn.

Ted Shawn has often been described as The First Gentleman of American Dance. We know he was more. After a certain age, 'Papaji' is how he chose to be addressed by those nearest to his heart— mark the jewel 'ji', so utterly Indian!

Lamentably, his story also has a sad and very painful side to it. Papaji Shawn departed this life, 25 years ago, on 9 January 1972, at the age of 81. His heart bleeding and an embittered man. For, in spite of his enormous bestowal to the dance, he had received no financial backing from any quarter to enable him to realise some of his most cherished dreams. It was harrowing for him to see his University of the Dance and the Jacob's Pillow Festival crumbling before his own eyes.

In his last days, racked by a severe breathing problem as he was, he kept getting more and more morose. And reminding himself of having been "burdened all the time with the simple fight for survival." What a man and what a life!  And, too, what an end!