Dancing with the Divine
by Angela Gayan Galik
Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) was born in a farming community in rural New Jersey. She was a dancer from an early age, performing in a wide range of styles from classical ballet to ballroom to vaudeville. By the 1910s she was emerging as a pioneer of the American modern dance movement.
According to a popular story, St. Denis’s curiosity about world religions was sparked when she saw a drawing of the Egyptian goddess Isis on an advertisement for cigarettes. Something about the image spoke to her and inspired her to learn more. She soon became very interested in Eastern mythologies, particularly Egyptian, Indian, and Japanese, and created projects in which she tried to present what she called a “translation” of the culture itself and stories from its spiritual traditions in a performance-dance format.
By the 1920s, St. Denis had become famous as a master of modern dance and an artistic innovator, as well as a sought-after teacher and co-founder of a prestigious New York academy of dance. Her passionate engagement with the spiritual dimensions of dance also continued to grow, and this became more and more a focus of her work.
A core tenet of St. Denis’ approach to her art was that through dance, one could connect with the Divine. Though in her early performances and “translations,” spirituality was more associated with something from another culture, as she grew older, she became more interested in planting the seeds of sacred dance in American soil. She founded a number of organizations to promote exploration of the sacred through dance, including the Society of Spiritual Arts in the 1930s, the Church of the Divine Dance and the School of Natya in the ‘40s and the St. Denis Religious Art Church in the ‘50s. Gatherings of these groups included meditation, talks on the esoteric aspects of dance, and performances of sacred dance by St. Denis.
Farrunnissa Rosa writes, “In 1954, the Hindu mystic Swami Papa Ramdas visited Los Angeles on his world tour, and was Ruth’s guest speaker. He describes her devotional dance which closed the meeting: ‘She went in and dressed herself for the occasion and came out dancing. Her dance exhibited serpentine movements of an ethereal type. There was perfect silence in the church. The slow movements of her dance created waves of peace that rose and fell in cadence. For us, who have never witnessed such dances, it was indeed a revelation. The impression left on our minds was a combination of surprise and elevation.’”
St. Denis wrote that “The Dance is motion, which is life; beauty, which is love; proportion, which is power. To dance is to live life in its finer and higher vibrations, to live life harmonized, purified, controlled. To dance is to feel one’s self actually a part of the cosmic world, rooted in the inner reality of spiritual being.” It is not hard to see in these words a connection to the mysticism of sound taught by Hazrat Inayat Khan. Indeed, while Inayat Khan used the concept of harmony to describe peace within the self and among people, St. Denis promoted “Peace through the Arts.” Both teachers were instrumental in impressing upon Samuel Lewis, creator of the Dances, the idea that music and movement can not only put people in touch with their deepest and most sacred nature, the arts can also be a pathway to lasting peace.
To Murshid SAM, St. Denis, or “Miss Ruth,” as she was known in the dance world, was a teacher, a colleague, and a “fairy godmother.” Having devoted much of her life to the study of spirituality in dance, she transmitted to Murshid SAM what Neil Douglas-Klotz describes as “the importance of re-visioning a form of American sacred dance which could be shared in groups.” Murshid SAM would be the one to carry out this project, as he created the joyfully embodied practice which became known as the Dances of Universal Peace. Both Lewis and St. Denis believed that through dance, people could access their inner connection with the entire universe - and through dancing in a group, they could experience the realness of their relationship to other human souls. The effect was more than a fleeting high - both teachers understood that a dance practice which combined ecstasy and devotion could be truly transformative.
Murshid SAM developed the concept of the Dances in discussion with St. Denis, and he sought her approval of his plans, which she gave. Lewis dedicated the very first Dance gathering to her. She passed away soon after, at the age of 89, leaving a legacy of grace, depth, and vision. The Dances would not be what they are without her pioneering groundwork and her commitment to developing the potential of dance as a means for everyday people in modern society to have an experience of the sacred that is both transcendent and fully embodied. Though her name is not always mentioned, her influence goes to the very heart of the Dances.