Ted Shawn, Father of Modern Dance
By Kevin Moore

As a contemporary dancer today, the evolution of dance is a subject that is very personal to me. To me, learning about modern dance is like learning about the origins of my passion. With contemporary dance, each movement is like a sentence in a well written story. The main purpose of exploring modern dance is getting to know the writers of these stories and to try to understand their styles and ways of expression that break past the structurally sound technicalities of ballet. Although technique is in no way forgotten with the use of contemporary dance, modern dancers broke past the status quo by combining the beautiful strength of ballet with the rebellion of individuality, providing a dynamic and original form of art. Ted Shawn was one of the first pioneers in this field of dance, and his usage of the male body mixed with his revolutionary choreography broke more than one mold in the history of modern and contemporary dance.

Making waves at an early age, Ted Shawn began dancing after his condition of diphtheria left him paralyzed at the age of 19. Not only did dancing cure his paralysis, but it inspired him to leave his teachings of being a minister behind to embark on a professional career in dance. After helping to create the first major dance picture Dances of the Ages, Shawn met his wife Ruth St. Denis in 1914 and the Denishawn dance company was born. It was the Denishawn Dance Company that discovered many modern dance originals, including the mother of modern dance herself, Martha Graham. The Denishawn Dance Company “aimed to demonstrate that modern dance could be a serious art, while maintaining the interest of mass audiences through the use of costume, spectacle and entertainment”  (Ted Shawn- New World Encyclopedia).

After his marriage and the Denishawn Dance Company ended in 1930, Ted Shawn embarked on creating a new name for himself in the history of dance.  Shawn established the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival , one of America’s oldest festivals in 1930 and created a new world of dance available to society. Unlike regular co-ed dance troupes, the Ted Shawn dance troupe consisted of all-male performers. Disregarding obvious gender roles and motifs that helped create the foundation of ballet without forgetting the strength and performance quality factors. “He set out to realize a dream; as a gay man, he was eager to dispel the "sissy" image of male dancers by establishing an all-male dance company whose signature style would be bold and muscular” (Mass Moments). Ted Shawn redirected the mainstream of dance by forcing society to consider the male body a beautiful and unique addition to the already beautiful and unique world of modern dance. However, Ted Shawn’s influences on dance on the whole were beyond their time and weren’t widely accepted by everyone. There were often men who would wait for an opportunity to assault the all male dance troupe as a way of denying that men were allowed perform with both masculinity and sensuality.

Contemporary dance is one of the many art forms that challenged the norms of society and shaped our world today. Ted Shawn was not only a martyr for contemporary dance, but a martyr for change in general.  His futuristic nobility introduced new entity to the dance community and his courage has impacted what we see as dance today.