Born in 1912 in Pennsylvania, Barton Mumaw was raised in Florida, where he saw a life-changing performance by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in 1928.
In 1930 he 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 the following year at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium. During the next two seasons, Mumaw toured with Ted Shawn and His Dancers, and he was with Shawn in his very first summers at a Massachusetts farm that would later become known as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
“Barton Mumaw is one of the best young dancers of the day by anybody’s standards. He dances with that instinctive flair which cannot be simulated or acquired but belongs only to the born dancer.”
– John Martin, The New York Times, 1938
From 1933 to 1940, Mumaw was a primary force in the groundbreaking tours by Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers, creating leading roles and performing in more than 750 cities across the U.S., Canada, and England. After the Men Dancers disbanded, Mumaw launched a solo recital tour and was hailed as “the American Nijinsky”. As a soldier during World War II, he performed in a variety of shows for American troops. He continued in popular entertainment after the war, appearing on Broadway and in touring productions of such shows as Annie Get Your Gun, Out of This World, and My Fair Lady, working with choreographers Helen Tamiris, Agnes de Mille, and Hanya Holm.
After Shawn’s death in 1972, Mumaw devoted himself to perpetuating the Shawn legacy through such activities as staging Kinetic Molpai for the Alvin Ailey Company and teaching master classes and workshops throughout the country. He continued a lifelong association with Jacob’s Pillow, including stints as Associate Director as well as serving as a frequent performer and teacher. His last dance appearance was in the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre in 1981, and he returned the following year to stage several Shawn works in commemoration of the Pillow’s 50th anniversary. It was during these anniversary celebrations that Mumaw was filmed for the award-winning documentary, The Men Who Danced. He also coached revivals for a 1991 Shawn centennial program known as Jacob’s Pillow’s Men Dancers, seen at New York’s Joyce Theater and on tour both nationally and internationally.
In 1986, Mumaw collaborated with Jane Sherman on a critically-acclaimed memoir, Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow and Beyond. He revealed the personal side of his relationship with Shawn in the book, which was reissued in paperback in 2000 and provided the occasion for Mumaw’s final visit to the Pillow for an autograph party that same year. Barton Mumaw died in 2001 at the age of 88. The final resting place for Mumaw’s remains is at Jacob’s Pillow, where his image on the Ted Shawn Theatre’s weathervane (inspired by his Bach Bourrée) continues to preside.