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“An Interesting Experiment in Eugenics”: Ted Shawn, American Dance, and the Discourses of Sex, Race, and Ethnicity

Abstract and Keywords

The “ethnic dance” movement in the United States is closely associated with Ted Shawn, the “Father of American Dance” (1891–1972). Shawn and his wife and dancing partner, Ruth St. Denis, founded a dance company called Denishawn, whose repertory incorporated Native American, “Negro,” and Spanish folk dances. By the mid-1920s, Shawn viewed American dance in terms of moral and physical purity—a philosophy he based on the discourse of eugenics. This article explores how the eugenics movement informed Shawn’s vision of American dance in the 1920s, particularly with respect to two of his related writings, The American Ballet and “An American Ballet.” It explains how Shawn’s personal and professional relationship with Havelock Ellis, a British physician who was a leading proponent of the eugenics movement in Europe and whom he considered his idol, influenced his views about eugenics. It also examines how Shawn’s anxiety about his own sexual “unfitness” (his homosexuality) shaped his racist, nativist, and xenophobic “experiment” with eugenics in American dance.

Keywords: ethnic dance, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Denishawn, Havelock Ellis, homosexuality, eugenics, American dance, The American Ballet, An American Ballet

Ted Shawn, the “Father of American Dance” (1891–1972), was closely involved with the “ethnic dance” movement in the United States—a trend among American choreographers to adapt the techniques and styles of folk, national, or sacred dance traditions for the concert dance stage.1 Shawn believed that this trend originated at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit first introduced Americans to “Oriental” dancing.2 The trend intensified, he claimed, with the popularity of dancing legend (and later, Shawn’s wife and dancing partner) Ruth St. Denis, whose performances of “divine” dances based on Indian, Egyptian, and Japanese themes “enlarged and enriched the vocabulary of modern dance.” (Shawn, 1954, 83) Shawn even credited himself for having expanded this vocabulary by incorporating Native American, “Negro,” and Spanish folk dances into the repertory of Denishawn, the dance company that he and St. Denis founded. Shawn maintained that the Denishawn tours of the U.S. vaudeville circuit, from 1915 to 1930, were an important stage in the ethnic dance movement, because they “prepared the public for the authentic and traditional dancers from many countries who were to appear later,” referring to the influx of foreign performers and ethnic dancers onto American stages in the postwar era (83). Moreover, Shawn was dedicated to training future generations of dancers in ethnic dances—first at his Denishawn schools in Los Angeles and New York, and later at his University of Dance at Jacob’s Pillow, the international dance festival Shawn founded in the 1940s. An integral component of the University’s curriculum, “ethnic dance” classes were taught by dancers such as La Meri, “the undisputed queen of ethnic dance (1959, 8)” Shawn once even insinuated that he contributed to the popularization of the term: “ ‘Ethnic Dance’ is the term I have used to include all dancing of folk, national, and racial origin (1948, 11).”

(p. 186) Although Shawn’s lifetime of dancing, writing, and teaching influenced the ethnic and racial diversification of American theatrical dance, that influence was not always positive. Over the course of his career, Shawn held diverse and often contradictory views about “primitive, racial, oriental, and national” dances and their place on the American dance stage (1948, 11). For instance, during the Denishawn years, arguably the height of his artistic influence, Shawn sought to distinguish his form of “art dance” from “the stylized, artificial crystallizations of 19th-century ballet,” “the meaningless acrobatics of the commercial theatre,” and the “savagery” of social dances, especially jazz. In that pursuit, he asserted that Denishawn’s distinct American character made it superior to other theatrical and vernacular dance forms. By the mid-1920s, Shawn narrowly defined American dance in terms of moral and physical purity—a standard he adopted from the discourse of eugenics.3

Eugenics—a 19th-century neologism derived from the Greek, meaning “wellborn” or “good breeding”—was a pseudoscience or “an epiphenomenon of a number of sciences, which all intersected at the claim that it was possible to consciously guide human evolution” toward a physical, intellectual, and moral ideal through selective breeding (Gillette 207, 2). By the 1920s, the United States had become a “eugenical world.” (Hasian 1996, 1) From the courtroom to the cinema, the scientific laboratory to the museum, eugenics permeated nearly every sphere of American culture, spreading its promise of “race betterment” and anxiety about American degeneracy. This eugenic creed resonated with Shawn’s own conviction that dancing was “the supreme method for becoming identified with cosmic forces and through that identity being able to shape those forces toward the benefits of one’s own tribe and self” (1948, 11–12). For Shawn, eugenics and dancing were affined methods for (re)producing ideal bodies.

The influence of eugenics on Shawn’s vision for American dance manifests most clearly in two of his related writings. In The American Ballet, Shawn’s 1926 treatise on American dance, he delineates his vision of a dance for “America’s elect” (1926, 53). To realize this vision, he proposes reinvigorating the dances of the nation’s “Anglo-Saxon forefathers” and selectively eliminating certain ethnic and racial dances from the nation’s stages and ballrooms.4 With “An American Ballet,” Shawn’s scenario for a three-act dance, Shawn conceived of staging man’s evolution from his pure, primordial beginnings to his modern-day state of ethnic and racial dysgenia, a condition that he intended to represent with a dance involving immigrants who are violently absorbed in the melting pot of New York City. Shawn’s solution to the racial and ethnic “chaos” was to perform a metaphorical ethnic cleansing, which Shawn, symbolizing “the Artist Soul of America,” was himself to conduct. Though never performed, “An American Ballet” suggests the degree to which Shawn experimented artistically with eugenic ideas about race betterment.5

In this essay, I elucidate the ways that the eugenics movement informed Shawn’s vision of American dance in the 1920s, particularly with respect to The American Ballet and “An American Ballet.” Moreover, I explain how Shawn received a very specific and intense exposure to eugenics through his personal and professional relationship with his idol, Havelock Ellis, the British physician and leading proponent of the eugenics (p. 187) movement in Europe. In 1922, Shawn met Ellis in London, ostensibly to talk about their shared interest in dance. As it turned out, their conversation focused on Shawn’s personal troubles, including his embattled masculinity, his homosexuality, his troubled marriage to St. Denis, and, thus, his narrow prospects of fathering children. Based on Shawn and Ellis’s meeting and correspondence, I argue that Shawn’s anxiety about his own sexual “unfitness” informed his racist, nativist, and xenophobic “experiment” with eugenics in American dance.

“Unconscious Eugenics”: Ted Shawn Meets the “Saint of Sex”

The term eugenics was coined by Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist who developed the theories of evolution and natural selection made famous by his cousin Charles Darwin. By taking a statistical approach to the study of heredity, Galton inspired a social movement aimed at improving the genetic gene pool (what he referred to as “germ plasm”) through “selective breeding” (Hasian 1996, 1). This end was most often sought through two means: “positive eugenics,” which promoted higher rates of fertility among the most socially and physically able members of society, and “negative eugenics,” which sought to improve the gene pool through the restriction, segregation, or elimination of undesirable traits of the “unfit,” including the “feeble-minded,” insane, poor, and terminally ill. Rarely applied neutrally, these measures carried out a broad range of policies that cut across the ideological and political spectrum. Eugenics influenced a host of progressive reforms, including the development of sex education, the legalization of birth control, labor reform, and women’s suffrage. However, eugenic theories also advanced discriminatory attitudes and policies based on race, ethnicity, class, and sex. For instance, it provided a “scientific” rationale for sterilization programs and anti-immigration policies. The most extreme manifestation of negative eugenics was the Nazi Party’s “Final Solution,” a program that justified involuntary sterilization and euthanasia of the mentally retarded and terminally ill and, subsequently, the systematic extermination of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals in order to promote the “Master” Aryan race. As its genocidal implications became painfully clear in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the international eugenics movement lost its momentum.

In the United States, the eugenics movement gained momentum at the turn of the century through the establishment of scholarly organizations and research institutes. Three of the most influential centers of eugenics research, publishing, and teaching were the American Breeders’ Association, which was founded in 1903 and published American Breeders Magazine (later, the Journal of Heredity); the Eugenics Record Office, which opened in 1919 in Cold Spring Harbor, New York; and the American Eugenics Society, which formed in 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut, and counted among its members J. P. Morgan, Miss E. B. Scripps, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who delivered the welcoming (p. 188) address to the First National Conference on Race Betterment in 1914 (Rosen 2004, 85). With financial support from philanthropic organizations such as the Carnegie Institute, eugenics research was conducted at leading universities, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford.6 Eugenics also found an influential spokesman in former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1914 article “Twisted Eugenics” warned against the threats of “race deterioration.”7 Ideas about “race betterment” were disseminated to the American masses by “combining entertainment with art and education with recreation” via “better-baby” contests and hygiene exhibitions at public fairgrounds (Hasian 1996, 43). For example, the Eugenics Record Office trained young eugenicists to perform field studies and gather information for the institute’s degeneracy studies. One of their first tasks was to write a play titled Acquired or Inherited?, a “eugenical comedy in four acts.”8

A “shibboleth of the Progressive Era,” eugenics also informed the “biological racism” at the heart of key legislative reforms in the 1920s.9 For example, in 1924, the state assembly of Virginia passed the Sterilization Act, which authorized the state to perform involuntary sterilizations of institutionalized “mental defectives” in order to deter the “transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime.”10 Also in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act—“a triumph of the eugenics movement”11 —drastically tightened immigration quotas to manipulate the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. citizenry. The rise of eugenics in the United States coincided with the debates between evolutionism and creationism, especially in the years leading up to the 1925 Scopes Trial, wherein the State of Tennessee prosecuted schoolteacher John Scopes for violating its prohibition against teaching evolution in the classroom.

In 1929, eugenics framed two public accounts involving dysgenic dancers, one fictional, the other real. That year, Erskine Caldwell published The Bastard, a popular novel that became one of the best examples of eugenic literature in the United States. Caldwell’s “bastard” is a man named Gene who was born to a hootchy-kootchy dancer and an unknown father. As a consequence of his ill-breeding, Gene develops into a eugenic nightmare: he drinks excessively, commits incest, and spreads sexually transmitted diseases. Caldwell’s fictional Gene became popular at the same time that a very real Eunice Pringle became infamous. In 1929, Pringle was a 17-year-old vaudeville dancer who was allegedly raped by the stage and film impresario Alexander Pantages in his famous downtown Los Angeles theatre. Her highly publicized trial against Pantages originally led to a conviction, but soon thereafter Pantages was released on appeal. Pringle ultimately admitted that Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of the American political dynasty, had coerced her into making false accusations against Pantages as part of an elaborate business scheme. The public trial made a spectacle of the young dancer in eugenic terms: her questionable morals, her failure to complete high school, and her alleged prostitution. She was even forced by the judge to appear in court wearing the red dress in which Pantages allegedly raped her.12

In 1913, Wisconsin was the first of 35 states that eventually adopted eugenic marriage legislation. States began to require that couples earn marriage certificates based on successful completion of medical exams, which often included tests for sexually transmitted (p. 189) diseases (Rosen 2004, 53–84). It was in this context of marriage reform that Shawn and St. Denis wed.

On August 13, 1914, Edwin Myers Shawn married Ruth St. Denis. “That statistical statement,” Shawn wrote in his autobiography, “while quite true, is completely misleading in its simplicity” (1979, 37). By this disclaimer, Shawn meant that the circumstances surrounding their nuptials were “tinged by cloak-and-dagger overtones.” He might have meant that the word marriage both overdetermined and underestimated the nature of their relationship, which was as much a business partnership and artistic collaboration as it was a romance. By “misleading,” Shawn might have more specifically been referring to the fact that the newlyweds did not consummate their marriage until two months after their wedding day, which kept them from immediately publicizing their union.13

Of course, the press eventually learned of the famous dancing couple’s marriage, which one writer characterized as “an interesting experiment in eugenics.” On November 22, 1914, the Washington Post announced the marriage between Shawn and St. Denis in a satirical article entitled “Union of the Splendidly Developed Dancer Ruth St. Denis and Edwin Shawn, ‘the Handsomest Man in America,’ May Produce Results of Great Value to the Science of Race Betterment.”14 The writer chides the couple’s “eugenic charms” and speculates that the medical community will scrutinize these “perfect specimens of humanity” given their great promise to produce a “eugenic baby” and to “improve our poor, deformed race.” Shawn and St. Denis left themselves vulnerable to the writer’s send-up by relaying anecdotes about their physical and artistic exceptionality. St. Denis, the established world-famous dancer, is portrayed as a beauty with strength that would “prostrate an ordinary man” yet is “remarkably qualified to be the progenitor of a more beautiful race.” St. Denis explains that she decided to marry Shawn because she “could not bear to think of leaving him alone with those nymphs,” referring to the young female dancers who always surrounded him on and off stage. Shawn’s unquestionable beauty forced the writer to speculate whether a eugenicist would approve of him as an “ideal of manhood.” Shawn apparently misled the reporter into thinking that he “never had a serious illness in his whole life, and that every organ is in perfect condition,” when, in fact, during his junior year of college, he had suffered a bout of diphtheria that left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Ultimately, the writer’s exaggerated descriptions of the couple’s superiority serve only to dramatize the unusual nature of their union, especially their 12-year age difference and their unconventional profession as dancers. “Eugenic science would not approve of this,” quips the writer, who also mentions the inexplicable gap in time between the couple’s August wedding and its November announcement, pointing to a potential crack in the veneer of their eugenic luster.15

Instead of a eugenic child, Shawn and St. Denis created eugenic dances and dancers. They developed a public image of their Denishawn dance troupe as a family. For instance, the young Denishawn dancers affectionately referred to Shawn as Papa. St. Denis called her dances “children of the brain” and her dancers “flesh and blood ‘children’ ” (St. Denis 1939, 306). However, in private, St. Denis avoided most familial attachments, distancing herself even from Shawn. The couple was separated during parts of (p. 190) 1917 and 1918, while Shawn was enlisted in the army, and again between 1919 and 1922, when they toured separately. Their letters to each other during these periods attest to the conflicted nature of their relationship. In several letters, St. Denis histrionically expresses her love for and devotion to Shawn, whereas in others, she candidly refers to her adulterous affairs with other men and makes reasoned pleas for an open marriage.16 Shawn grew increasingly distraught by St. Denis’s conflicting messages, though he maintained an “ideal of fidelity” (Shelton 1990, 155). The tension eroded their relationship to such a degree that when the opportunity arose, they sought the counsel of the one man whose experience with dance and the pressures of an unconventional and childless marriage rivaled their own: Havelock Ellis, one of the most outspoken proponents of the eugenics movement.

In the scientific world, Ellis was best known for his pioneering role in sexology, the science of sexuality. With J. A. Symonds, Ellis wrote the first English-language medical book on the topic of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion (1897), which posited that “inversion” is an instinct or “congenital element” as opposed to “acquired”—a critical distinction to the depathologization of homosexuality.17 Ellis’s ideas for sexual reform were influenced by the eugenics movement. He corresponded directly with its leading proponents, including its founding figure, Galton, with whom he actively participated (p. 191) in devising strategies to shape public opinion that would eventually lead to legislative reform (Richardson 2003, 216). For example, in 1906, Ellis declared St. Valentine the “patron saint of sexual selection” so as to convey the impression that “eugenics had an eminently respectable, romantic, and importantly national past.”

Ellis’s eugenic ideas extended beyond the sphere of selective breeding and into the domain he called “social hygiene,” by which he meant reform for working and living conditions. In his book The Task of Social Hygiene (1912), he famously argues that “[i]t is the task of this hygiene not only to make sewers, but to re-make love, and to do both in the same spirit of human fellowship, to ensure finer individual development and a larger social organization” (Ellis 1913, viii–ix). For Ellis, “re-making love” included advocating for women’s suffrage, birth control, and sexual education. It also meant challenging the prevailing Victorian view that dance was a form of moral degeneracy and instead recognizing its eugenic imperative within the spheres of sexuality and religion.

Shawn and St. Denis became aware of Ellis through his article “The Philosophy of Dancing,” which was published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1914.18 The article formed the basis of Ellis’s book The Dance of Life (1923), his most successful publication in the United States, in which he argues that dancing and architecture are the two “primary and essential arts.” Ellis’s ideas about dance were meant to expand a parochial Victorian view of dance as sexually illicit and culturally degrading. In fact, for Ellis, dancing is the “supreme symbol” of sex and religion (1923, 36). For example, he explains that the human impulse to dance activates during the “process of courtship,” wherein the males compete not only with other males in a contest of sexual selection, but also with females whose imagination they must capture.

By his beauty, his energy, his skill, the male must win the female, so impressing the image of himself on her imagination that finally her desire is aroused to overcome her reticence. That is the task of the male throughout nature, and in innumerable species besides Man it has been found that the school in which the task may best be learnt is the dancing-school. Those who have not the skill and the strength to learn are left behind, and, as they are probably the least capable members of the race, it may be in this way that a kind of sexual selection has been embodied in unconscious eugenics, and aided the higher development of the race. The moths and the butterflies, the African ostrich and the Sumatran argus pheasant, with their fellows innumerable, have been the precursors of man in the strenuous school of erotic dancing, fitting themselves for selection by the females of their choice as the most splendid progenitors of the future race (46). (Italics added.)

For Ellis, dancing is an unconscious reenactment of a choreographed battle for individual and racial survival. The “strenuous school of erotic dancing” teaches humans the skills of sexual discrimination. Just as dancing reenacts a primal scene of sexual conquest, so, too, does it propagate religious beliefs by representing sacred myths.19 Inasmuch as religious dancing re-enacts “divine drama[s],” Ellis maintains that dancing is a sign of a religion’s fitness.20

(p. 192) In an article about Ellis’s Dance of Life, Judith Alter points out that choreographers and writers uncritically embraced his broad and unconditional validation of dance as an art form. She observes the influence that Ellis had on John Martin, Walter Sorell, and Roderick Lange, among others. She also mentions that Shawn had an “admiration” for Ellis, which is an understatement at best.21 Shawn completely idolized Ellis with a devotion he often expressed in religious terms. In the inaugural issue of Denishawn Magazine, Shawn refers to Ellis as “St. Havelock,” the “Saint of Sex,” and “one of the greatest messiahs” and to Ellis’s article “The Philosophy of Dancing” as “the dancer’s bible” (1924). Shawn even described the experience of meeting Ellis “as holy as the Last Supper” and likened his contact with Ellis to touching “the hem of the garment of Jesus.”22

In 1922, St. Denis and Shawn were completing a four-week engagement at the London Coliseum. Shawn received rave reviews for his performances, which catapulted him from St. Denis’s limelight and made him “an internationally acclaimed dancer” (1979, 106). Shawn considered the London performances a great artistic and professional achievement, even though the success was somewhat eclipsed by his sadness and jealousy over St. Denis’s public liaisons with other men. In an un-redacted draft of his autobiography, Shawn admits he was tortured by St. Denis’s search for “ ‘romance’ in all directions” and commiserated with Martha Graham, then a Denishawn dancer, who was similarly heartbroken. Graham was in love with Louis Horst, the Denishawn musical director, who not only refused to divorce his wife, but also brought her along with the company to London.

It was during this trip that St. Denis and Shawn separately met with Ellis at his home in the London suburbs. Shawn recorded the date of the meeting in his diary: Tuesday, June 3, 1922, at 11 a.m. St. Denis had visited Ellis a day earlier, which minimally suggests the highly personal nature of their talks. In their respective autobiographies, St. Denis and Shawn describe these meetings as philosophical salons on the topic of dance. In reality, they were more like marriage-counseling sessions. In fact, months before these meetings, Ellis mailed Shawn a paper on the topic of “childless marriage,” which strongly suggests that they had already begun to communicate with Ellis about their marital problems.23 In a 1969 interview, Shawn exposed additional details about his meeting with Ellis, explaining that he had hoped to meet Ellis above all other Brits, including King George, and that he had imagined the meeting would be like “a charming garden party.”24 It was quite the contrary.

Well it was a memorable meeting. I went out to his strange bleak, suburban apartment. I don’t know what I expected, but this noble head, snow white hair, long patriarchal white beard, and sort of very rough, smelly tweeds. Tweeds always seem damp when they’re thick. He sat back in a chair, sort of concave, hands folded, and this strange, high-pitched little voice that I was totally unprepared for. But if I ever came into the presence of a saint! This man, to me, rates as one of the greatest messiahs, one of the avatars. I was—with him, every moment, I was aware that I was in the presence of divinity itself. It was a thrilling, ennobling experience.

(p. 193) Despite the unexpected sterility of the surroundings, Shawn opened up to Ellis: “Since he was the great saint of sex, and had preached on the beauty and rightness of sex, the art of love—how marvelous, how ecstatic, how right, how wonderful it can be—I began to pour out my heart, the agonies and sufferings that I was going through.”25 Shawn must have felt confident talking with Ellis about the state of his marriage, particularly the great shame and embarrassment he felt owing to St. Denis’s affairs. Ellis would have been an ideal person to address Shawn’s concerns, since he was also in an unconventional and childless marriage. Ellis’s biographers tell us that he was impotent. Moreover, like Shawn and St. Denis, Ellis and his wife, Edith, lived apart for long periods of time, as she preferred the company of her lesbian lover.

As the foremost medical authority on the topic of sexual inversion (a 19th-century term for homosexuality), and the husband of a lesbian, Ellis was, in some measure, the ideal person to counsel Shawn, who confided in Ellis about his homosexuality. Moreover, Shawn might have confided in Ellis about his suspicion that St. Denis was herself a lesbian.26 However, Ellis’s response to Shawn’s “agonies and sufferings” was not as sympathetic as Shawn might have expected from his “Saint of Sex.” Ellis replied: “Well I have always maintained that two artists should never marry.” Consequently, Shawn asked Ellis whether he should consider divorcing St. Denis, to which Ellis gave the following contradictory advice: “Once a marriage has been made, it becomes a thing itself. It is a living entity, and [ … ] once you have created that entity you’ve created something that if you tried to kill it, it would be like murder. This is now your karma. You work it out.”27

Shawn was not entirely persuaded by Ellis’s advice to remain married to St. Denis—a decision that would have kept him from ever realizing his eugenic promise. In fact, Shawn questioned the reliability of this advice when he met with another of his idols just a few days after meeting with Ellis. At Ellis’s insistence, the British philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter attended a matinee performance of the Denishawn company at the London Coliseum. Shawn and St. Denis had written in glowing terms about Carpenter and his collection of poems Towards Democracy (1883–1902). Shawn likened him to Walt Whitman, especially for his bold declarations of sexual freedom. In fact, Carpenter wrote Homogenic Love (1894), whose neologistic title gave Shawn the language to identify his same-sex desire.28 Comparing Carpenter to Whitman was not entirely coincidental, as Shawn might have known that the two literary giants had once been lovers. Assisted by a younger man, the frail 80-year-old Carpenter met Shawn backstage after the performance. They dined together, and, according to Shawn, “a beautiful rapport was established.”29

During their meal, Shawn asked Carpenter about the integrity of Ellis’s marriage to Edith, to which Carpenter cryptically responded: “Edith Ellis believed that if society would totally and completely recognize and accept homosexuality as simply one form that is right and normal in the way of a sex expression, give it such complete acceptance that it is never even questioned or thought about as anything but the ordinary experience of life, she believed that this would release enormous stores of creative energy for the benefit of mankind. After a pause he said very simply, ‘And so do I.’ ” Shawn (p. 194) described Carpenter’s response as an “epic making statement” that validated his own sexual views: “Of course it was so sweet, so tender, so utterly simple for him to say.” Shawn went on to call his meeting with Carpenter “the most tremendous human contact I ever had.”30

Notwithstanding Shawn’s proclivity to exaggerate, his time in London was a life-defining experience, both professionally and personally. That said, he left London with conflicting advice about the state of his marriage and his desire to procreate from, of all people, an impotent eugenicist and a homosexual poet. Evidently, Ellis was ambivalent about the advice he had given Shawn. A month after their meeting, Ellis wrote to Shawn, empathizing with Shawn’s “complicated situation.”31 Ellis rescinded his advice to stay married to St. Denis and instead encouraged Shawn to “be true to his own nature or else suffer the difficulty in attaining harmony between one’s own ideals and the facts of life one is up against.”

Despite Ellis and Carpenter’s encouragement to accept his homosexuality “as right and normal,” Shawn remained married to St. Denis, at least on paper.32 Based on their correspondence to each other during the time between their London engagement and their historic 1925–1926 tour of the Orient, they continued to enjoy a passionate long-distance relationship. A year after their London visit, Shawn traveled through Spain to study folk dances and flamenco. He wrote to St. Denis daily, recounting the sights and sounds of Seville, endlessly describing the costumes and props that he had purchased, and repeating his vows of fidelity to her. In a letter dated May 15, 1923, he explains that he had declined a proposition from a local guide who offered him the opportunity to have sex with a group of gitanas who performed privately for Shawn in a theater in Seville. Shawn remonstrated (to the guide, and to St. Denis in the letter) and vowed to remain “pe-ure!”

Shawn could not easily dissolve his marriage for reasons that were as much financial and artistic as romantic; yet remaining married to St. Denis also meant that he needed to find an alternate way to leave a legacy befitting “the handsomest man in America”—a legacy that would reflect Shawn’s “great racial stock” and his superior moral fiber (1926, 80). Shawn’s paternal grandfather was a German immigrant (one of 13 von Schauns) and his mother was of English and Danish descent. In fact, Shawn traced his maternal ancestors back 10 generations to the Danish invaders of England at the time of King Canute (Terry 1976, 19). Indeed, Shawn was the progeny of both Anglo-Saxon and Nordic ancestry. If he were not going to fulfill his eugenic promise as a husband and father, then he would fulfill it through his art, ethnicity, religion, and race.

Choreographing the Melting Pot: Ted Shawn’s American Ballets

On August 7, 1925, Shawn, St. Denis, and the Denishawn company boarded the SS President Jefferson to travel from Seattle to Yokohama, Japan, where they began what (p. 195) was scheduled to be a 24-week tour of Asia. Theirs was the first ever tour of the Orient by an American dance company. In their autobiographies, Jane Sherman and Doris Humphrey, then young Denishawn dancers, recall playing and dancing with Papa Shawn while aboard the ship. St. Denis remembers lounging on the ship’s deck as Shawn recited verses of Walt Whitman. In the meantime, Shawn found time to finish a manuscript entitled The American Ballet, a book he had hurriedly drafted on the train from New York to Seattle.

The American Ballet is Shawn’s treatise on American theatrical and social dancing and a call to reform attitudes, expectations, and performances of American dance. In the foreword, Shawn introduces his vision for American dance as if it were a birth announcement for a eugenic baby. He proclaims that “the long period of pregnancy is nearly at an end—the new birth is imminent” (1926, v). This American dance would be conceived by “spiritual seed” and nurtured in the “cradle” of America for it to develop from a “strange and red-faced” newborn “without teeth [or] hair” into a “healthy baby” (12–13). However, within the book’s opening pages, it becomes clear that Shawn did not necessarily want to give birth to a new dance, technique, or style so much as he wanted to revive the dances of his Anglo-Saxon forebears—the Virginia Reel, the March and Circle, and the Boston Fancy. To justify his vision, Shawn selectively and sometimes erroneously draws upon Ellis’s key passage about the “unconscious eugenics” at play in the dance of sexual selection. Interestingly, and perhaps unconsciously, Shawn mistakenly attributes this passage to the ancient Greek philosopher Lucian (ca. 120), and not to Ellis.33

Ellis might not have minded being mistakenly overlooked. At Shawn’s request, Ellis wrote the introduction to The American Ballet, which was no doubt a quid pro quo for Shawn’s having written “The Dancer’s Bible,” his paean to “St. Havelock” in Denishawn Magazine. Decades later, Shawn revealed that he was commissioned to write the article by the Houghton-Mifflin Publishing Company in advance of the distribution of Ellis’s book in the United States. In exchange, Ellis wrote the introduction to Shawn’s The American Ballet. In exchange, Ellis agreed to write the introduction to Shawn’s book, though by no means reciprocated Shawn’s adulation. Overall, Ellis condescendingly refers to Shawn’s writing as a form of “eloquent pleading” and distances himself from Shawn’s book in several other ways.34 Ellis renounces his newfound status as the “prophet” of dance, claiming that “there cannot be a more unsuitable person to introduce such a book,” as he had neither “practical connection with the ballet nor any scientific knowledge of dancing.” He then dissociates himself from Shawn’s central claims, which Ellis explicitly says “may be discounted.” In some measure, his ambivalent introduction undermines Shawn’s use of eugenics as a tool to build his racist and xenophobic case for an American dance. This type of scientific disclaimer was not altogether uncommon: “From the scientists’ perspective, amateurs popularized eugenics at the expense of the very science that fueled it” (Rosen 2004, 64).

Shawn introduces his vision for the “dance of America” as a “democratic” art that will “encompass all forms” (1926, v). However, throughout the book, he addresses his presumed white, educated Anglo-Saxons reader through a series of expressions that (p. 196) invoke a shared racial past. He refers to “a new social dance of our own,” a return to the “American country dances of the time of our grandmothers,” and to the threatened “tradition of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers” (52). Elsewhere, he describes this new dance as a spiritual bequest to be inherited by “America’s Elect” or its “better people.”35 The power of this dance, he promises, will restore the nation to a state “that was conceived by men who wrote the Constitution,” many of them slaveholders (1926, 51).

To his readers, Shawn poses the rhetorical question: “What is the fine thing, what is the deep and abiding and permanent thing which we have to express through the medium of dance?” (1926, 7). His response is Anglo-Saxon folk dances and court dances of Europe. He arrives at this answer only after paying a passing consideration to the dances of “local color,” such as those of the Native Americans and “American Negroes.” Shawn wrote about nations, races, cultures, and religions somewhat interchangeably. Within the same swath of text, he compares the “church” of Egypt, the “culture” of Greece, and the “nations” of Italy and Spain (1926, 6). His system of classification is entirely arbitrary, as are his standards for evaluation. For instance, Shawn considers Native American dance a form of American dance, based on his conviction that indigenous Americans are “the most sensitive and advanced souls of the entire white race” albeit “deteriorated” and that their dances express their “high order” and “ethical nobility” (1926, 16). Though Shawn envisioned that there could one day be a “negro ballet,” he summarily excludes from his vision of American dance all forms of “Negro” dance—the Charleston, tap dancing, the “shimmy”—which he believed needed to be “cleaned up and cleared up” (1926, 51).

Shawn’s anxiety about racial dysgenia is nowhere more evident than in his writings about jazz, in which he echoes the racist diatribe against jazz by modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan in her 1927 autobiography, My Life. Duncan also claimed to have been moved by the democratic poems of Walt Whitman, yet she similarly dismissed jazz rhythm as the expression of the “primitive savage” (1955, 244). Shawn intensifies Duncan’s dismissal with the pseudoscientific language of evolution, calling jazz an “absolute retrogression” and, quoting Daniel Gregory Mason, the “doggerel of music” (1926, 49–50). Shawn’s racist claim is based on a pseudobiological rationale: “The negro brought with him all the primitive simplicity of the rhythm of the savage, the unsophistication in regard to his body and its natural functions. Because of the structure of his vocal organs, the negro has a rich and beautiful voice, and an inherent love of sweet melody” (1926, 21). Moreover, he proposes that American dance be cleansed of the infectious presence of jazz: “Jazz is the scum of the great boiling that is now going on, and the scum will be cleared off and the clear fluid underneath will be revealed” (1926, 7–8). By “great boiling,” Shawn obviously refers to—and indeed, reverses—the theme of ethnic integration, made famous by Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (1908), “the biggest Broadway hit—ever.”36

The racist imperative at play in Shawn’s writings is so entrenched that he does not explain his reasoning about why black music and dance threaten American values or the American obsession with them—a fixation he called a type of “public astigmatism” (1926, 87). Why, for example, are the Virginia Reel and “Old English dances” “superior” to or more “refreshing” than the “poison and putrefaction of jazz”? (1926, 52–53). This is (p. 197) a paradox that Shawn could not even reconcile for himself. In fact, in his 1929 book Gods Who Dance, a collection of essays about dance and religion, he discusses his admiration for Burmese dancing based on his perception of its similarity to American jazz (1926, 75). In some instances, Shawn eschews reason and rhetoric altogether and summarily bases his impressions on his own racist experiences: “But when one sees a white person do these dances, it is disgusting, because the negro mental and emotional conditions cannot be translated into the white man” (1926, 22).

Drawing on a common rhetorical device from eugenic discourse, Shawn appeals to his readers’ racial panic and threatens them with a metaphorical racial annihilation:

Do we want to accept the dictum of the hectic Broadwayite, the denizen of the cabaret, the habitué of the slums, the negro from the dives of southern cities, and the inhabitants off the Barbary Coast of San Francisco as our last word in the way of social dancing? Do you think that the low interpretation of these people is capable of making a dance form which will express you? Do you think that the mental and moral conditions of those people will produce a type of social dancing which will be an expression of your personality? I think you will all agree in the negative. Then what are we going to do about it? Apparently if we go to a place where there is dancing, we have only one alternative—to stand still or to dance what everyone else is dancing. (1926, 51–52)

Shawn’s ultimatum is backed by two equally disturbing threats—to “stand still” or to “dance what everyone else is dancing”—both of which lead to the paralysis, annihilation, or disappearance of the white race. This threat is posed not only from the jazzy Negroes of the South but also from those on the “Barbary Coast,” the poor (“the habitué of the slums”), and the “hectic Broadwayite,” an oblique reference to Jews. Elsewhere, Shawn references the threat of the “the moron.” This was not a generic aspersion but a specific reference within eugenic discourse to the “feeble-minded” and “mentally retarded” as anomalies to the eugenic ideal.

In the last chapter of The American Ballet, Shawn describes his dream for a dance school that would be a breeding ground for eugenic dancers. He envisioned a campus of 60–100 children “chosen in regard to parentage which would indicate artistic leanings, physical health and beauty, character and intelligence” (1926, 125) However, the curriculum would cover the “universality of the dance,” including dance forms of Spain, Japan, and East India. Students would be exposed to “the great foreign dancers of the world”; yet his own American dance company would include only “American born and American trained dancers, dancing to music by American composers, with scenery and costumes designed by American artists, and under the direction and management of American business men of great vision” (40).

Indeed, in 1928 Shawn and St. Denis instituted new policies governing the admission of students to their Denishawn School and company that would achieve that vision. This change in policy may have reflected the federal immigration quotas that were instituted by the Immigration Act of 1924. Doris Humphrey, then a Denishawn dancer, later recalled the meeting when St. Denis and Shawn announced that the number of (p. 198) Jewish students in the company was not to exceed 10 percent. It was the first time that Humphrey had heard “either director express a racial prejudice,” including the time she spent with Shawn and St. Denis during their extensive travels throughout the Orient in 1925–1926 (Humphrey 1972, 62–63). Humphrey explains that this quota led her and fellow dancer Charles Weidman to leave Denishawn.

The prospects for black dancers in Denishawn were even more limited. For example, Edna Guy, an African American student at Denishawn, was permitted to perform at student recitals, yet she was never invited to join the company. Instead, Guy traveled with the company as a personal assistant to St. Denis. Like Humphrey, Weidman, and many other Denishawn dancers, Guy severed ties with Denishawn. She went on to become a leading figure in the emerging Negro dance movement.37

Despite the influence of eugenics on Shawn’s writings and policies, he generally avoided the temptation to create “eugenic art.” Shawn neither choreographed spectacles of human degenerates nor dramatized cautionary tales of American dysgenia. On the contrary, Shawn’s dances staged “eugenic ideals” of physical, moral, national, and racial exceptionalism, even when such dances were based on “primitive, racial, oriental, and national” dancing (1948, 3). Such ethnic dances allowed Shawn to stage his eugenic aspirations, since he considered them, as did Ellis, a privileged means for man to connect to his primordial, and thus more pure version, of himself.38 This often led to interesting contradictions between Shawn’s writings and his choreography.

For example, in The American Ballet, Shawn warns: “We need never to borrow material from any nation, for we are full to abundance with undeveloped ideas and themes” (1926, 26). Shawn had written these words nearly a year before he composed his signature solo dance, The Cosmic Dance of Siva (1926), an interpretation of the Hindu god Siva’s mythical dance that led to the creation of the world.39 No doubt Shawn would have reconciled this contradiction by referencing Ellis, who wrote about the “supreme religious importance” of Siva’s cosmic dance. Ellis’s valorization of this dance inspired Shawn to actively pursue learning the dance when he traveled to India. During a week’s hiatus from the Denishawn Orient tour, Shawn met with a swami who taught him the dance. In his autobiography, Shawn explains that he performed the dance in “brownface” on tour with the Ziegfeld Follies in the United States, where it “stopped the show at every performance” (1979, 208).

Shawn often organized “primitive, racial, oriental, and national” dances within larger choreographic structures that implied the process of evolution: Think animated museum dioramas that display man’s movement toward “race betterment.” This impulse is evident within one of Shawn’s earliest works, a 13-minute film called Dances of the Ages, which was produced by the Thomas A. Edison Company in 1913. A dream sequence within the film dramatizes the “dances of the ages”—from the caveman’s fire dance and an ancient Greek bacchanal to the French minuet and the modern American rag. A similar evolutionary structure governs many of Shawn’s dances, especially O, Libertad! An American Saga in Three Acts: The Past, the Present, and the Future (1937), which, as the title suggests, chronicles the history of the Americas from Montezuma to the modern era. In some dances, the evolutionary structure is present even when the subject matter does not involve ethnic dances. For instance, Labor Symphony (1934) evokes the (p. 199) evolution from man’s dependency on physical labor to his mastery of industrial machinery. The evolutionary dimension of Shawn’s dances speaks to his overarching idea that dance is a reflection of man’s progress toward becoming a “more perfect race” (1926, 77).

There is one glaring exception to the claim that Shawn never conceived of eugenic art: “An American Ballet,” Shawn’s scenario for a three-act dance based on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. What we know of the dance comes from Shawn’s typewritten outline and first scenario.40 Although never performed, the scenario reveals the extent to which Shawn aspired to transfer his experiment with eugenics from the page to the stage. As outlined, the choreography dramatizes the central idea of his The American Ballet book—namely, that dance is an ideal means toward producing a “more perfect race” (1926, 77). It makes that case by dramatizing the history of America from its primordial beginnings to what Shawn perceived as its modern state of racial and ethnic dysgenia, a condition created by the combined forces of immigration, industrialization, commercialism, and jazz. In all likelihood, Shawn conceived of the dance while writing The American Ballet, though possibly earlier. St. Denis tells us that Shawn recited passages from Leaves of Grass on the SS President Jefferson en route to the Orient, which is when he completed the book manuscript. He must have written the scenario after 1924, since he annotated it with the Doubleday edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass published that year, but before or at the very latest during the 1927–1928 Denishawn Follies tour, when Shawn still had a reasonable expectation for mounting a production with the Denishawn group. By 1928, Shawn was aware that the Denishawn days were numbered.41 In 1927, a man named Fred Beckman came between Shawn and St. Denis. At first, Beckman became Shawn’s representative and later, his lover. When Shawn learned that Beckman and St. Denis had their own “secret liaison,” he fled for Connecticut, then Germany, which only hastened Denishawn’s inevitable dissolution (Foulkes, 2002, 83).

“An American Ballet” was a very ambitious enterprise, due not only in its scope and length but also to the complex social statement that Shawn had planned to convey through dance. For example, he intended for each of the dance’s sections to correlate with a specific passage from Leaves of Grass. Although he annotated the scenario with passages from Leaves, he did not explain whether those verses were to be read during the performance. In some measure, Whitman’s poetry gives the dance not only its structural framework but also its ideological basis. Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass before eugenics had a name, yet his work is repeatedly cited as a “much-favored literary prop to the eugenic argument” (Wolff 2009, 220 n.28). Moreover, Whitman’s writings and the eugenics movement were similarly influenced by phrenology, the 19th-century “science” that determined a person’s character and faculties based on cranial measurements. A copy of Orson Squire Fowler’s Practical Phrenology, “the bible of the American phrenological movement,” was found among Whitman’s belongings. Fowler was also a distributor and later publisher of Leaves of Grass. Fowler and Whitman’s writings share the phrenological belief that there is a correlation between a person’s soul and his or her physical body:

Again, the qualities of the mind correspond with the build of the body. If the latter is beautifully formed, well proportioned, handsome, etc., not only will its motions (p. 200) be easy and graceful, but the feelings will be exquisite, the mind well balanced, and a beauty, perfection, taste, refinement, elegance, and good sense will characterize every thing he says or does.… This accounts for the fact that men great in a particular line generally have a remarkable build, walk, countenance, manner of thinking, expression, and action (Fowler 1840, 32).

Shawn, the so-called “Handsomest Man in America,” accepted this proto-eugenic idea about the correspondence between physicality and character. In fact, he cites eugenicist Albert Edward Wiggam, who similarly argued that the relationship between physicality and sociality is determined eugenically: “[Beauty] is as deep as protoplasm, as inherent as intellect, as vital as character. In the large it is woven into protoplasmic fabric with all that is admirable and excellent. It is correlated with intelligence and refinement of soul. It is one sure germinal basis of racial stock. It blooms instantly where given a happy soil and a congenial air.”42 “An American Ballet” draws on this belief in the correspondence between physicality and character via characters who personify various American types. This is especially true of the character “Artist Soul of America,” which Shawn describes as a prophet-like figure whose perfection and beauty heal a degenerate mass of immigrants in the final act.

As written, the first act begins with St. Denis as the Spirit of the Sea, whose movements represent the expansiveness of the earth, the glory of the mountains, and the beauty of the landscape. Shawn, as Man, discovers the Spirit of the Sea and plants himself into the earth. In a scene that recalls both Ellis’s “dance of life” and the Garden of Eden, the Sea and Man experience a sexual awakening, which leads to the peopling of a new Continent.

The second act, the Dance History of America, comprises a sequence of nine sections of dances of American types: Native Americans, pioneers, colonial laborers (blacksmiths, harvesters, woodsmen), lumberjacks, cowboys, and Negroes. This section also features a dance called “The Love of Comrades,” based on Whitman’s series of Calamus poems about homosexual love. Shawn retains Whitman’s use of the word comrade, a euphemism for homosexuality, and suggests that he meant to include homosexuals in his choreographed pageant of American types by stipulating in his scenario that the dance should be performed by men—“virile and wholesome—but with a romantic theme.”

Having established the formation and population of America, in the third act, Shawn dramatizes the threats to its destruction by choreographing the melting pot, the metaphorical symbol of American ethnic integration. In Shawn’s care, the melting pot is more of a meltdown. Not surprisingly, he sets this meltdown in New York City, which he had repeatedly described as a type of modern-day cesspool: “New York [ … ] is a city of the world and not a city of America.… It has a huge foreign population which intends to remain foreign; therefore, if we are to understand what the message of America is, we cannot expect to find anything but a small portion of it in New York” (1926, 8). Shawn’s vision of New York could not have less in common with Whitman’s, especially given the (p. 201) latter’s valorization of the city’s ethnic and class diversity, succinctly expressed by the following lines in Leaves of Grass:

  • Superb-faced Manhattan!
  • Comrade Americanos!—to us, then, at last, the Orient comes.
  • To us, my city (Whitman 1904, 293).

In a revealing gesture, Shawn casts St. Denis as “New York,” the symbol of impurity, promiscuity, and danger. At first, she sits enthroned, a symbol of wealth and power, but soon begins to stir the pot of immigrants who pour into her city. These “immigrants from all [over] the World” perform “episodic dances of Europe: Spain, Italy, Hungary, Russia; Africa: Savage and Negro; Asia: East Indian, Japanese, Chinese, etc.” Shawn’s melting pot is a chaotic, dangerous “maelstrom,” wherein “crowds of immigrants are all sucked into a whirlpool of American City People” yet “emerge just long enough to establish identity and then are sucked back.” The intensity of the melting pot transforms them into an unidentifiable mob of impurity. They emerge as dehumanized levers, wheels, and cogs of a machine that manufactures “cheap masked figures” or the “Spirit of Jazz.” In Shawn’s view, both technology and jazz represented modernity’s dehumanizing effects on man.

To restore their lost humanity, Shawn appears as the “Artist Soul of America”—a messianic figure who heals the world of its dysgenia through art. Shawn’s outline emphasizes that the Artist Soul character represents the “art consciousness of America” who has come to protect American purity from the threats of “commerce, jazz, sensuality, and greed.” To guide the nation, the Artist Soul takes to city’s streets wielding a torch, which Shawn says, is like a “flame in Liberty’s Torch” with the power to “heal the Mob and surmount them.” However, in his Notes to the Composer Shawn explains this same scene in slightly different terms, emphasizing the beauty and perfection of the Artist Soul who triumphs over the dysgenic mass:

Then comes the artist soul of America who sees the tops of the great buildings like some golden dream city—signifying the beauty that may and shall emerge from America’s beginnings. He starts for his goal but is met by the forces of the commercial business world, by cheap jazzy pleasure seekers, by sensual desires, by other obstacles. Hurled back he searches within and finds his inner light, which turning on the crowd reveals to each of them his perfect self and they acclaim him—Messiah. He mounts until he stands on the torch of Liberty, and radiating light, the Artist Soul becomes itself the flame of Liberty’s Torch.

In this final moment of the dance, Shawn stages an Armageddon, using his own body as a weapon against the threats of annihilation posed by the degenerate masses. Abiding by the admonition that he levels at his readers in The American Ballet, Shawn offers his body as an exemplar of racial, ethnic, and moral perfection: “We must in all our activities be a torch to the world, and in the dance most of all” (1926, 14). He describes this form of physical display as a battle, invoking the proto-eugenic language of Darwin’s (p. 202) “battle of the fittest,” and paradoxically, as a type of eugenic beauty pageant. Shawn’s victory is won through physical display rather than physical conquest. Indeed, his victory is inherited rather than earned. This much is conveyed by the “Artist Soul’s” “torch,” the unmistakable symbol of human heredity. Upon “searching within,” the prophet figure learns that he is the bearer of “radiant light,” a curious healing substance that links him to “America’s beginning,” not unlike the mysterious germ plasm in the science of eugenics, the hidden stores of genetic material that is carried forward from one generation to the next as if in a eugenic relay race. Of course, Shawn’s “torch” also evokes the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming beacon, although in his hands, the “flame of Liberty’s Torch” is used to repel rather than attract foreign bodies and to spotlight his own physical perfection. After all, throughout The American Ballet, he laments the attention that jazz takes from the Denishawn brand of theatrical dancing. Here his battle with the “dark charms” of greed, sensuality, and jazz are not necessarily with the forces themselves, but for the attention they draw away from his practice of an emerging “art” dance.

The final battle scene in “An American Ballet” resolves when the Artist Soul heals the forces of evil embodied by immigrants, pleasure seekers, and jazz freaks. Essentially, Shawn’s torch-wielding dance enacts a purification rite—a metaphorical ethnic cleansing. In turn, the masses recognize him as the Messiah. In this final scene, Shawn’s eugenic fervor converges with his deep belief in dance’s healing power, a belief based on his experience recovering from diphtheria during his adolescence. In fact, Shawn started to dance as a form of physical therapy, which transformed his paralyzed body into an ideal of beauty, grace, and perfection—“the handsomest man in America.” Shawn’s fundamental belief in the sacred healing power of dance, combined with his adoption of eugenic ideas about ethnicity and sex, informs the final moment in the dance, wherein his beautiful, white, Christian body overcomes the forces of unfitness in an attempt to restore purity to the national body.

However, it is important to note that Shawn’s spectacular racial triumph transpires only in relation to a silent sexual victory. Twice when describing his battle with the forces of “Commerce, Jazz, Sensuality, and Greed,” Shawn cryptically alludes to “other obstacles” (in the notes) or “etc.” (in the outline). Presumably, sexual puritanism counts among these unnamed forces at contest for America’s soul. In The American Ballet, Shawn expresses his disapproval of the American obsession with partner dancing between men and women, which he goes so far as to say is “degenerate” and an obstacle to the creation of art. He writes: “The wooing and courtship theme in life has its place, and a very important place, but it should not absorb all of our life. We would not get any business done, and we would not produce any works of art” (1926, 52–53). His criticism partially explains how “An American Ballet” clears the stage of heterosexual courtship in order for new sexual desires to emerge. Within the dance’s narrative of human evolution there is a distinctive development of sexual relations: the dance begins with the mating of Man and the Spirit of the Sea, progresses toward a dance among comrades, and concludes with the solo performance of a demigod-like figure who transcends sexuality. The dance charts a sexual evolution that reflects Shawn’s own narrative of sexual discovery—his eugenic pairing with St. Denis, his relationships with comrades such as (p. 203) Ellis and Carpenter, and later, his vow of purity. Thus, Shawn stages himself as the “flame in Liberty’s Torch” not necessarily to shadow his glaring sexual unfitness (his childlessness, his adulterous marriage, his homosexuality) but perhaps to spotlight how, through his identification as an artist and as the “Father of American Dance,” he believed he had transcended it.

Conclusions: “The Stepchild of the Dance World”

When a Washington Post writer announced the marriage between Shawn and St. Denis as an “interesting experiment in eugenics,” he could not have imagined how Shawn’s anxiety to fulfill his eugenic ideal as a husband and father would later lead him to assert himself as an artist through his racial, ethnic, physical, and moral superiority. Essentially, Shawn redesigned the “interesting experiment” by closely observing the variables of his marriage and sexuality and establishing his own experimental controls: his book The American Ballet and his scenario for “An American Ballet.” In these texts, Shawn experimented with applying scientific ideas to formulate his emerging form of modern American theatrical dance. Eugenics, as filtered through Ellis’s sexology, inspired Shawn to experiment with ways that dance could contribute to the “betterment of the race,” and of Americans, in particular. For Ellis, dancing was a sign of sexual or religious fitness. For Shawn, dancing was both the symptom and the cure. In Shawn’s view, betterment meant a return to Anglo-Saxon social dances and/or to the sacred dances of “primitives,” such as Native Americans, Indians, and other “exotics.” Both pedantic and polemical, The American Ballet and “An American Ballet” were written by someone inflamed by ideology. Yet, apparently, that flame was short-lived.

Shawn eventually aborted his experiment in eugenics. In fact, in his autobiography, he describes the moment he received his copy of The American Ballet while still on tour in the Orient. He reports that he barely recognized the words in the book as his own and that he had not thought of the manuscript in over a year. Although he does not disavow the book’s central ideas, this admission minimally suggests that the fervor with which he had written it had since subsided.

As for “An American Ballet,” Shawn wrote the scenario, outline, and notes, but the dance never saw the stage. When Shawn conceived the work, he had neither the time nor resources to mount a full-length, three-act work of the magnitude he envisioned. The scenario calls for original costuming and music, as well as a significantly greater number of dancers than that of the Denishawn company of the late 1920s. Indeed, it was highly experimental for Shawn to conceive of an evening-length modern dance work.

It is also possible that Shawn had become ambivalent about the dance, especially its choreographed “ethnic cleansing.” Shawn was on a solo tour in Germany in 1930–1931, and by the time he had returned, his scenario was out of line with the aesthetics (p. 204) and politics of the emerging modern dance movement in New York. By 1930, Shawn’s former student and dance partner, Martha Graham, had begun to present radical dances with her all-female dance group. In dances such as Revolt (1927), Poems of 1917 (1928), Immigrant: Steerage, Strike (1928), and Heretic (1929), she dramatized the plight of the rebel and the outsider, rendering Shawn’s concern for “America’s elect” politically and socially irrelevant. In 1931, former Denishawn student, Edna Guy, participated in producing the first Negro dance recital in New York and thus, was no longer relegated to the backstage as St. Denis’s assistant. In 1932, leftist dance artists formed the New Dance Group and committed themselves to fostering a revolutionary dance movement. Modern dancers wanted to empower the masses with dancing as a political weapon—quite the opposite of Shawn’s intention to purify the masses with his torch of truth.

Arguably, Shawn continued his eugenic experiment at Jacob’s Pillow, an abandoned farm in Becket, Massachusetts, that was at first his summer residence and later developed into the center for His Men Dancers, the all-male dance company he directed between 1933–1940. Many of the dances he created for this group were used as vehicles to display eugenic virtues of virility, athleticism, beauty, piousness, and industriousness, even when the dances involved ethnic peoples.43 However, he never again attempted to stage explicit threats of racial annihilation, make ultimatums for ethnic segregation, or call for a dance of “America’s elect.” Ultimately, the Father of American Dance embraced ethnic dance into his family, even if only as “the step child of the dance world” (1959, 28).


Manuscripts, Unpublished Sources, and Interviews

Jacob’s Pillow Archives (Becket, Massachusetts)

Shawn, Ted. “Outline and First Scenario for American Ballet in Three Acts.” (unpublished typescript)Find this resource:

    Shawn, Ted. One Thousand and One Night Stands, Unpublished Manuscript of Ted Shawn’s Autobiography, Part 1. Jacob’s Pillow Archive, Becket, Massachusetts.Find this resource:

      New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Division (New York, New York)Find this resource:

        Letter, Havelock Ellis to Ted Shawn, November 17, 1921, Box 39, Folder 4, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

          Letter, Havelock Ellis to Ted Shawn, June 9, 1922, Box 39, Folder 3, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

            (p. 207) Letter, Ruth St. Denis to Ted Shawn, December 30, 1921, Folder 15, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

              Letter, Ted Shawn to Ruth St. Denis, May 15, 1923, Folder 30, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

                Letter, Ted Shawn to Walter Terry, January 30, 1938, Folder 517, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

                  Shawn, Ted. “Primitive Rhythms” commentary [sound recording], 1951, Ted Shawn Collection.Find this resource:

                    Shawn, Ted, interview by John Dougherty, Reminiscences: from Childhood to the Dissolution of Denishawn, January 11–30, 1969, sound recording and transcript.Find this resource:

                      UCLA (Los Angeles, California)Find this resource:

                        Letter, Ted Shawn to John Dougherty, December 20, 1967, John Dougherty Collection, UCLA.Find this resource:

                          Published Sources

                          “Acts and Joint Resolutions (Amending the Constitution) of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia, Session Which Commenced at the State Capitol on Wednesday, January 9, 1924.” Richmond, Va.: David Bottom, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1924. Accessed August 1, 2010 at []

                          Alter, Judith B. “Ellis’s Essay ‘The Art of Dancing’: A Reconsideration,” Dance Research Journal 24, no. 1 (1992): 27–35.Find this resource:

                            Burke, Siobhan. “Imagining the Dance of America, Regenerating ‘The Race’: The Eugenic Fantasy of Ted Shawn.” Senior Thesis, Barnard College, 2008.Find this resource:

                              Caldwell, Erskine. The Bastard. New York: Heron, 1929.Find this resource:

                                Carpenter, Edward. Towards Democracy. London: J. Heywood, 1883.Find this resource:

                                  Carpenter, Edward. Homogenic Love: and its Place in a Free Society. Manchester: Labour Press Society Limited, 1894.Find this resource:

                                    Currell, Susan. “Introduction.” In Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s, edited by Susan Currell and Christina Cogdell, 1–16. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                      “Dancer Wed Her Youthful Partner,” Tucson Citizen (November 28, 1914), p. 4.Find this resource:

                                        Duncan, Isadora. My Life, Isadora Duncan. New York and London: Liverlight, 1955.Find this resource:

                                          Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion (Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 1). Watford: The University Press, 1897.Find this resource:

                                            Ellis, Havelock. “Eugenics and St. Valentine,” Nineteenth Century 59 (1906): 779–787.Find this resource:

                                              Ellis, Havelock. “The Philosophy of Dancing,” The Atlantic Monthly (1912): 197–207.Find this resource:

                                                Ellis, Havelock. The Task of Social Hygiene. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. First published 1912.Find this resource:

                                                  Ellis, Havelock. The Dance of Life. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1923.Find this resource:

                                                    Foster, Susan Leigh. “Closet Full of Dances: Modern Dance’s Performance of Masculinity and Sexuality.” In Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage, edited by Jane C. Desmond, 147–207. Madison, WI.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                                      Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                                                        Fowler, Orson Squire. Fowler’s Practical Phrenology. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1840.Find this resource:

                                                          Gillette, Aaron. Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture Debate in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave, 2007.Find this resource:

                                                            Hasian, Marouf Arif. The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                                              Holloway, Pippa. Sexuality, Politics, and Social Control in Virginia, 1920–1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                  Shawn, Ted. Every Little Movement: A Book about François Delsarte, the Man and His Philosophy, His Science and Applied Aesthetics, the Application of This Science to the Art of the Dance, the Influence of Delsarte on American Dance. Pittsfield, MA: Eagle, 1954.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                    (p. 209) “Students of Eugenics Closely Watching This Marriage: Union of the Splendidly Developed Dancer Ruth St. Denis and Edwin Shawn, ‘the Handsomest Man in America,’ May Produce Results of Great Value to the Science of Race Betterment,” Washington Post (November 22, 1914).Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                              (1.) Dance critic and historian Walter Terry famously called Shawn the “Father of American Dance” in his biography Ted Shawn: Father of American Dance. However, the moniker was Shawn’s own idea. In a letter dated January 30, 1938, Shawn berated Terry for a review he had written about the history of modern dance that ignored Shawn’s formative role in the art. Shawn urged Terry to “straighten out” that oversight.

                                                                                                                              (2.) In his letters to La Meri (Russell Meriwether Hughes), Shawn vigorously encouraged her to teach at the Pillow and to publish her writing on ethnic dance. Ted Shawn Collection, Box 19, Folder 16; Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

                                                                                                                              (3.) Shawn, Every Little Movement, 82. Elizabeth Kendall has made a link between the eugenics movement and Shawn’s writings and dances. (Where She Danced, 105–106.)

                                                                                                                              (4.) Shawn used the word ballet instead of dance in The American Ballet and “An American Ballet” in order to convey a sense of the seriousness associated with the “known form” of the European theatrical tradition. (Shawn, The American Ballet, v). Shawn also wrote an introduction to a similarly titled book, The American Ballet, by Olga Maynard (Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1959). Shawn, The American Ballet, 53.

                                                                                                                              (6.) For a condensed outline of prominent eugenicists and research centers in the United States, see Lynn, Eugenics: A Reassessment, 24–27.

                                                                                                                              (7.) The article is largely a critique of the argument that war negatively affects race betterment because the best men go to war and are killed.

                                                                                                                              (8.) For a discussion of the ERO and the relation between eugenics and 20th-century U.S. drama, see Wolff.

                                                                                                                              (9.) For a more detailed analysis of the U.S. legislative reform ushered in by eugenics, see Holloway, 21–51.

                                                                                                                              (10.) “Acts and Joint Resolutions.” In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld this law in Buck v. Bell.

                                                                                                                              (11.) According to eugenic historian Kenneth Ludmerer, as quoted in Lynn, Eugenics: A Reassessment, 35.

                                                                                                                              (12.) For an analysis of Caldwell’s The Bastard in light of eugenics, see Currell. Interestingly, Denishawn was closely linked to the Pantages circuit; the company was one of the first acts Pantages hired to join his roster of entertainers on his successful vaudeville circuit of theaters in the United States.

                                                                                                                              (13.) This is according to Terry, Shawn: Father of American Dance, 61.

                                                                                                                              (14.) The “Handsomest Man in America” was a conciliatory title that Shawn received after a previous reporter had mistakenly confused him with Paul Swan, “The Most Beautiful Man in the World.” For Shawn’s discussion of the title, see One Thousand and One Night Stands, 45.

                                                                                                                              (16.) St. Denis wrote to Shawn asking for an open marriage on the basis “that harmony can only be between [them] in a basis of honesty and freedom … each of [them] feeling reasonably satisfied that his own soul is his own and not another’s.” Letter, Ruth St. Denis to Ted Shawn, December 30, 1921, Ted Shawn Collection, Folder 15, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

                                                                                                                              (17.) See Weeks for a detailed explanation about how Ellis’s medical explanations were adopted by campaigners for homosexual rights.

                                                                                                                              (18.) In The Dance of Life book, the title of the chapter based on Ellis’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Philosophy of Dancing,” was changed to “The Art of Dancing.”

                                                                                                                              (19.) For more on Ellis’s ideas about sexuality and dance in relation to Shawn, see Foster, “Closet Full of Dances.”

                                                                                                                              (21.) Shawn, interview by John Dougherty, Reminiscences: from Childhood to the Dissolution of Denishawn, January 11–30, 1969, sound recording and transcript, 281, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (hereafter Reminiscences).

                                                                                                                              (23.) The paper was included in a letter from Ellis to Shawn (November 17, 1921), Ted Shawn Collection, Box 39, Folder 4; Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

                                                                                                                              (26.) In 1967, Shawn wrote a letter to one of his former students and dancers, John Dougherty, wherein he ruminates about St. Denis’s lesbian relationship with one of their young Denishawn dancers, Pearl Wheeler:

                                                                                                                              She had a doglike devotion to Miss Ruth personally. Between you and me, privately, it was apparent to me that it was inherently Lesbian, although so far as I know there was no overt expression of this. However, Miss Ruth used Pearl, and trading on this attraction, tossed bits and scraps of physical caresses at times when Pearl needed coaxing or was about to blow up. Pearl often came to me when Miss Ruth was especially “ruthless” and cried on my shoulder, but when there was any real question of choice, she belonged to Ruth body and soul—as maid, companion, general errand girl, as well as costumer, wardrobe mistress, costume designer, dancer—anything Miss R needed, Pearl tried to be that. (Letter, Ted Shawn to John Dougherty, December 20, 1967, John Dougherty Collection, UCLA.)

                                                                                                                              (27.) Attributed to Ellis in Reminiscences.

                                                                                                                              (28.) Letter, Ted Shawn to Ruth St. Denis, December 31, 1920, Ruth St. Denis Letters, Folder 107 (January 1920); Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

                                                                                                                              (31.) Letter, Ellis to Shawn, June 9, 1922, Ted Shawn Collection, Box 39, Folder 4, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

                                                                                                                              (32.) Attributed to Ellis in Reminiscences.

                                                                                                                              (33.) Shawn, The American Ballet, 43. For original passage, see Ellis, The Dance of Life, 46.

                                                                                                                              (34.) Ellis in Shawn, The American Ballet, ix.

                                                                                                                              (35.) Shawn, “The History of the Art of Dancing in Four Parts: Part III,” The Denishawn Magazine (1924) vol. 1, no. 3, 11.

                                                                                                                              (36.) See Nahshon, ed., From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot, 211.

                                                                                                                              (37.) For more on Guy’s achievement in context of the Negro dance movement, see Manning, Modern Dance / Negro Dance: Race in Motion, 30–38.

                                                                                                                              (38.) Ironically, Shawn acknowledged that many “primitive, racial, oriental, and national” dances were not necessarily “pure,” and, in Gods Who Dance, that certain dance traditions had been influenced by multiple cultural, religious, and political influences.

                                                                                                                              (39.) This is based on Shawn’s description of the dance. See Shawn, Gods Who Dance, 6.

                                                                                                                              (40.) The document is six pages in length. Three pages outline the three acts of the dance with sparse descriptions of their individual sections. The other three pages are written as “Notes to the Composer” and give a more detailed explanation of the dance.

                                                                                                                              (41.) According to Shawn, Denishawn disbanded in 1931, although there are several different ways to date the company’s dissolution. Shawn, The American Ballet, 5.

                                                                                                                              (42.) Wiggam in Shawn, The American Ballet, 79–80.

                                                                                                                              (43.) Drawing on the work of Nancy Ordover, Siobhan Burke has convincingly made this argument.