TED SHAWN, choreographer and dancer, born (d: 1972); a key figure, and the only male figure, in the founding period of modern dance. With his wife, Ruth St. Denis, he was half of the production company “Denishawn.” Shawn appeared in the classic films Intolerance in 1916 and Don’t Change Your Husband in 1919.
Picture brawny, ripped men, scantily costumed as Indian warriors, Greek gods, and Olympic athletes. No, we’re not talking about the hired entertainment at a Gay circuit party but about Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, circa 1933. Shawn and his all-male troupe revolutionized the way people saw male dancers when they performed all over the United States in the 1930s. The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, founded by Shawn — one of the great pioneers of modern dance — celebrated its 85th anniversary this summer.
Barton Mumaw, who was both Shawn’s leading dancer and his lover for many years, wrote candidly about their passionate partnership in Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow and Beyond. Shawn, who had been married to choreographer Ruth St. Denis (together they had formed the legendary Denishawn Dance Company), decided to go his own way in 1932 to show America that men could choose modern dance as a legitimate, masculine profession.
Shawn hired and trained men, many of whom had been star college athletes, to dance his choreography with his new company, which was based at his Becket, MA farmhouse. In March 1933, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers gave their first, historic, all-male performance in Boston. By May 1940 when Shawn disbanded the group, the Company had danced for over a million people in all of the United States, in Canada, Cuba and England, having challenged and irrevocably changed the course of American dance.
The dancers were chosen for athleticism and looks, as can be seen from snapshots from the period. “The photographs work incredibly well as homoerotic images in the year 2002,” says David Gere, a professor of dance history and queer studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote the foreword to the 2000 edition of Mumaw’s book. Shawn’s dance retreat in Becket, Massachusetts, became the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.