Edwin Myers Shawn was born on October 21, 1891 in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Denver, CO. While studying to become a minister, Shawn suffered a bout of diphtheria at the age of 19, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. On the advice of his physician, he took up dance as a form of physical therapy. Dancing cured Ted Shawn’s paralysis and left him with a passion that would guide and direct him for the rest of his life.
Although Ted Shawn’s first dance experience was with a Metropolitan Opera ballerina and he achieved some success as part of an exhibition ballroom team, it was meeting Ruth St. Denis in 1914 that would set his artistic life in motion. They were married that same year.
During the next 15 years, the activities of their Denishawn Company and School changed the course of dance history; most of today’s modern dancers trace their ancestry to Denishawn. It was Shawn who first recognized Martha Graham’s potential and he was instrumental in shaping the early careers of Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Jack Cole. While St. Denis provided most of the creative sparks (“I can inspire like Hell” was her own assessment of her talents), Shawn had the business sense to make Denishawn a coast-to-coast success.
Shawn and St. Denis separated in 1930 and this also brought about the dissolution of the Denishawn Company. With the purchase that same year of a rundown farm in the Berkshires known as Jacob’s Pillow, Shawn laid the groundwork both for his revolutionary company of men dancers and America’s oldest dance festival.
“He was keen of wit, caustic of tongue, avid of interest, terrifically temperamental, of inexhaustible energy, tenacious, aggressive, indomitable…of the stuff to become the first male dancer in America to achieve a position of influence and importance.”
Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers
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. For the final three decades of his life, Shawn became a major impresario, bringing dance to mainstream America through the theater and school at Jacob’s Pillow. To promote his principle of the importance and universality of dance, Shawn introduced countless foreign companies to American audiences, provided opportunities for promising young artists and trained countless students in a full range of dance styles. Shawn orchestrated premieres by both the established and emerging talents of his day including Agnes de Mille, Anton Dolin, Pearl Lang, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Alvin Ailey, and Robert Joffrey.
There are a number of “firsts” achieved by Ted Shawn during his lifetime:
- The first American man to achieve a world reputation in dance, as seen here in a famous solo
- Conceived, choreographed and appeared in one of the first dance films, the Thomas Edison Company’s Dances of the Ages in 1912
- The first American dancer to be awarded an honorary degree by an American college
- The first male dancer to be listed in Who’s Who in America
Shawn was honored with the Capezio Award (1957), the Dance Magazine Award (1970) and he was knighted by the King of Denmark for his efforts on behalf of the Royal Danish Ballet. Posthumously, Shawn was named as one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000.
In spite of declining health, Shawn remained at the helm of Jacob’s Pillow until his death in 1972 at the age of 80. For most of his career he encouraged his students to call him “Papa” and his legacy as the artistic father for generations of dancers and teachers suggests that “Papa” was a very apt name indeed.