The History of Jacob's Pillow

Once a hard-scrabble mountaintop farm, now a home for international dance.

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers in Dance of the Ages, 1939; photo John Lindquist, © Harvard Theatre Collection

An historic place for dance

Modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, bought the Jacob’s Pillow farm in 1931. Shawn had long harbored a dream of legitimizing dance in America as an honorable career for men, and in 1933, he recruited eight men for a new dance company. In July 1933, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers started offering “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” in their barn studio (now known as the Bakalar Studio) to promote their work, establishing roots for what was to evolve into Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

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Ted Shawn

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.

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Ruth St. Denis

Any performance by "Miss Ruth" was distinguished by her remarkable stage presence. Through Denishawn (1914-1929), the company and school she founded with Ted Shawn, St. Denis made her greatest impact on audiences and on a generation of disciples including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

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Barton Mumaw

Barton Mumaw studied at Denishawn, a pioneering school that also helped to launch the careers of dance legends Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, and performed with the company. During the next two seasons, Mumaw toured with Ted Shawn and His Dancers, and he was with Shawn in his very first summers at Jacob's Pillow.

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Why is it called Jacob's Pillow?

To settlers in the late 18th century, the switchbacks on what is now Route 20 were reminiscent of the ladder to heaven depicted in the Bible, and so they named the road Jacob’s Ladder. Finding this cushion shaped rock on their farmland more than two centuries ago, the Carter family furthered the allusion by naming their homestead “Jacob’s Pillow.” Ted Shawn kept the name.

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