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"We dancers reveal your inner selves.
We are your dreams made real."~ Ruth St. Denis
In 1924 modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis assembled all of her "Denishawners" in an empty theater in New York City for announcements about the upcoming season. Seventeen-year-old Louise Brooks, a rising star in the company, came in a side door and slipped into a crushed-velvet seat. Her late arrival didn't go unnoticed. In fact, Miss Ruth, as her students called her, had summoned the meeting in part to address those who were not living up to her holistic approach to dance, which required hours of barré and ballet exercises, after-hours readings, spiritual development and adherence to Denishawn decorum in dress, diet and behavior. At the time, Brooks had told an interviewer, "Miss St. Denis is very strict. She won't let us smoke or eat candy or stay up late or anything," while her peers complained privately: "We do nothing but work and dance."
St. Denis took her aspirations for her troupe from the Kantian precept of "the Good, the True and the Beautiful." Louise certainly was beautiful with her gamine bob and dark, alluring eyes, but on the other two counts, according to St. Denis, she fell short. Company gossip had "Loose Louise" out late at night dancing, drinking, smoking and generally behaving like a '20s flapper. She was simply too "jazzy" for Denishawn's company. When Ruth was a young performer, her chaste behavior amid the debauchery of her fellow showgirls had inspired a theater promoter to attach "Saint" to her stage name, and by all appearances to her students and colleagues, she hadn't changed much since.
Miss Ruth spoke to her unruly pupil from downstage as if delivering lines from a popular melodrama: "Well, Louise, to be brief and to the point—not to keep you from your more pressing concerns—I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver."
St. Denis's quick dismissal of such a talent as Brooks came partly from her own frustration with the drudgery of her performance schedule that since childhood had been unrelenting. She moved her show from dime museums, variety roof gardens and vaudeville theaters to the salons of the wealthy and finally to established and respected American and European theaters. Yet there was always the same tedious routine [End Page 124] of rising before dawn, bad food, ill-informed reporters, tatty dressing rooms and firetrap theaters. She tired of supporting first her family, then her husband and, by the time Louise arrived on the scene, the perennially underfunded Denishawn Dance Company.
Nothing had been served to St. Denis on a silver platter. She'd fought long and hard to become a serious dancer, creating the modern genre with only one model to look to for guidance, Isadora Duncan, who for most of her career was a rival. Always the show must go on. Her goal had been less to pioneer a new style of dance in America than to figure out how to communicate emotional or spiritual states through physical gestures. [End Page 125]
Ruthie Dennis, born in 1879, grew up on a twenty-acre farm near Somerville, New Jersey. Her mother, Ruth Emma Dennis, earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan (the second in the school's history awarded to a woman). She never practiced her profession, though she did dispense medical advice to her neighbors along with lectures on women's rights and the evils of oppressive dress. She refused to wear the requisite corsets or bustles of the day. Ruthie's father, Tom Dennis, was something of a bumpkin. Dreamy by nature, he spent much of his time designing dynamos, bikes and flying machines. The designs languished in the U.S. Patent Office. Ruthie grew up a tomboy who dressed much like her stepbrother, Tom, Jr., in blue jeans and plaid shirts with carelessly cropped hair...