The Shawns of America!  
Parents of modern dance 
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

Click on images for enlarged version
January 27, 2009  

Conducting a course recently on dance history (and how to write dance) for budding journalists drawn from various colleges, hosted by Attakalari of Bangalore, I have stumbled on some very interesting aspects of Indian dance history. For one, Indian classical dances owe its revival to foreigners, in no small measure. The Anna Pavlovas, the Shawns, the Ragini Devis, the La Meris... Twelve years ago, I was to do my Ph. D at the Tisch School of Art, New York University on the same subject and corresponded with Dr. Richard Schechner, the head, also an authority on the Ramayana. His work with India in the seventies and eighties on Ramlilas of north India is seminal. He was so happy to have my application and was very supportive and hopeful I would get to do my research on the above subject under his guidance but alas! my father (and the father-figure of Indian dance history) Mohan Khokar was diagnosed with cancer just that year and I had to forego my plans for Ph. D at Tisch and serve a much larger cause of Indian dance history at home. 

That study and my recent teachings point to the role of Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis, the pioneering American dancers among whose students ranked Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman among many more legendary names. Martha Graham said, "Miss Ruth opened a door and I saw into a life." 

Ted Shawn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 21, 1891 to Ellsworth Shawn and Mary Lee Booth and named Edwin Myers but the nickname Ted stuck for life. The family had a conformist background and he was thus admitted to a course in theology, to prepare him to become a preacher! He was growing up to be a strapping young man when at 18, he was struck by diphtheria and the illness left him somewhat paralysed from the hips down. As he was bed bound, he despaired and wondered what would become of him and his life and then by chance he thought of taking up dance to build muscles and immobilised limbs. But in those days, dancing by males was considered sissy and he did not want to become the butt of any jeering. 

He soon plucked courage and started ballroom dance training with simple steps and guide. It seems to help for in a few months he was walking! This humbled him and he saw dance in new light. He wanted to give dance something in return. He did. By becoming a great dancer, he gave dignity to the male dancer. 

Selecting a group of young men with sinewy bodies, he prepared a series of dances glorifying the male form. With this, he toured extensively, thus before long totally erasing the disdain for male dancers in USA. His became the first and only male dance company in America.  

Ted Shawn was just embarking on his life when, in 1914, he saw Ruth St Denis perform.  Ruth was born in New Jersey between 1877- 80 (the date is imprecise) and started her career as an actress. Like Isadora Duncan, who preceded her, Ruth was a revolutionary artiste who felt the need to break from the limitations of ballet. She saw the salvation of the dance not so much in the rhythms of classic Greece as in those of the Orient - Japan and India. Knowing fully well that the western mind could not assimilate the content of these dances of the East, with their gestures and movements that have come down through long generations as symbols of faith and legend, she made no attempt to reproduce them. Her aim was to give a fair and beautiful translation that would help American and European dance audiences come closer to Oriental cultures. In that she proved to be catalyst. 

Her many dances with Indian themes like 'Radha,' 'Incense,' 'Cobra,' 'Nautch Dance' made many come closer to things Indian and Ted Shawn was drawn to her art and her. He was convinced he had found a kindred spirit and convinced her too and the two got married. Denishawn the dance school and the dance company was born! 

Denishawn toured and continued until 1932 during which time they trained countless dancers. The most memorable tour from Indian dance history point of view was in 1925 as when the company landed in India at Calcutta, the only word they knew was nautch. They started making enquiries about where they could see it and only at the end of their 18 day stay did they succeed - that too through the American Consulate. As Ted Shawn explained to Mohan Khokar, "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 fortunate to see two star performers of the day, Bachwa Jan and Malika Jan, both professing Kathak. Watching Bachwa Jan, St Denis could not contain herself and, as if in trance, got up and started improvising to the same music. This delighted Bachwa Jan so much that she unfastened the ankle bells she was wearing and proferred them to Ruth St Denis.  
In Calcutta, Denishwan performed at the Empire Theatre. Two of her favourite items Ruth had included in her tour repertoire were 'The Nautch Dance' and 'Dance of The Black and Gold Sari' but now she was very reluctant to offer these in Calcutta! As it turned out, the two items proved to be most smashing not only in Calcutta but wherever the company performed.  Ted ascribed this success to the inherent showmanship of Ruth. After Calcutta, it was Bombay, then Karachi. Delhi was a village and nowhere in the picture! 

After Karachi, in Mohan Khokar's birth town, Quetta, they had the chance to sample tradition of young Muslim boys masquerading as girls and dancing something akin to Kathak. In Lahore, they had the good fortune to meet the leading Kathak exponent Pt. Hira Lal, who taught them the 'Mohr Nautch' or what became 'The Peacock Dance.' In Delhi, they had no engagement, so used the week to wander as tourists and went to Chotta Nagpur to meet "the rajah of the sandals," who had seen them perform in Calcutta and thus invited them to his kingdom. It was a delirious week watching tribals perform with joyous abandon. 

They next went to Darjeeling where at the Bhutia Monastery, they managed to see some Tibetan dances and learn the basics. In the south, they extended their trip to include Madurai, where they marvelled at the felicity of the celebrated devadasi Kamalamba and then to Hyderabad. 

Their tour of India gave them many insights into India and wherever they went they opened the eyes of Indians to beauty and greatness of Indian dances neglected under long colonial rule.  
The fallout of this tour was the creation of the 'Cosmic Dance of Shiva' in which Ted himself adorned the role. For this, he created a huge ring of fire made in metal by a Calcutta foundry, at centre of which he stood as Nataraja - he qualified the title since he was the Lord of Dance, himself.  

Ruth and Ted parted in 1932 and the same year, he founded a centre for adult education in dance which he called University of Dance and also launched Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. He came to be acknowledged as Father of Modern American Dance and died on 9th January 1972. His work still continues and so does the Jacob's Pillow..... 

Prof. Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian of India with 30+ books to his credit and many column/articles written in the last 25 years for the Times of India, Firtscity, Life Positive, The Eye, Pulse, Sruti, Drishti, India Today and He conducts special courses, lectures, studies on Indian dance heritage for many universities. A reputed critic and scholar, he sets the tone for standards in dance writing by editing and publishing India's only yearbook on dance, attendance (  He also serves dance education and dance history by adding to and organising the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection.  (