Inventors of Gay: Ted Shawn
Oct. 21, 1891 — Jan. 9, 1972
Ted Shawn attended the University of Denver intending to become a minister of religion, but ended up catching diphtheria. He took up dance as physical therapy to strengthen his muscles and fell in love with the art form. Ironically, his continued interest in dance caused his expulsion from school. His interest developed when, in 1914, he married dance diva Ruth St. Dennis, a dancer with a large company that performed “spectacles” on the Vaudeville circuit. After they married they formed the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles with notable students Martha Graham and Louise Brooks.
Along with the crash of 1929 came the end of the partnership between Shawn and Denison. They remained married for the rest of his life — the marriage gave them both a veneer of respectability — but the household was dismantled and Shawn went east. 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.
His company not only performed all-male dances, but they lived and worked communally on Shawn’s rustic property. They grew their own food, built their own lodgings and lived harmoniously as a mixed group of straight and gay dancers. In a time where the word “dancer” was synonymous with "prostitute,” Shawn managed to sell his male dance concept to the world as wholesome and athletic. A full-page feature in the Boston Sunday Post in 1936 includes photos of the men in all manner of strenuous exercise, mostly in mid-air. The accompanying blurb reads, “These lads, besides doing all the work on the farm, train five hours daily. They’re more rugged and better fit physically than any other athlete in the world and this dancing business, though it may seem simple, is more hazardous than any he-man sport.”
The group also included former Denishawn dancer Barton Mumaw, who was to become Shawn’s lover and an essential part of Jacob’s Pillow for nearly seventy years. While with Shawn, Mumaw began a relationship with a John Christian, a young stage manager with the company. However, rather than exploding the domesticity, Mumaw introduced Shawn to Christian. This led to Shawn and Christian beginning their own romantic relationship while Mumaw was traveling. No reports show that the trio had a "traditonal" threesome relationship; this was, after all, a time when no one spoke of male-male relationships.
From a modern perspective it's difficult to say which side of the triangle lasted the longest, but it is clear that as with Mumaw and Ruth Dennison before, Christian's relationship with Shawn was a creative partnership as well. Christian became his right-hand man and eventually took over the reins when Shawn died.
“When in doubt, twirl.”
“I believe that dance communicates man’s deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written.”
Why we care:
Shawn took over the reins from Sergei Diaghilev in focusing on the male dancer. He created an ambiance in which gay and straight men lived and worked harmoniously, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival continues his legacy.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.