Los Angeles had gained a reputation as a terpsichorean haven by 1926, with modern dance pioneers like Ernest Belcher, Norma Gould and Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn operating schools in the area. The mild climate ensured that scantily-clad maidens could frolic among the eucalyptus trees and rose bowers all year ‘round.
Born in New Jersey in 1879, Ruth St. Denis started dancing professionally in New York while still in her teens, appearing at the Worth dime museum and in vaudeville. David Belasco, whose brother would run L.A.’s new Belasco Theater in 1926, gave Ruth her first job on the legitimate stage. She toured Europe with his company performing Radha, an oriental dance based on Hindu mythology, which made her a star.
Ted Shawn came to Los Angeles from Denver in 1911. He partnered with Los Angeles native Norma Gould performing for tea dasants at the Alexandria and Angelus hotels. In 1914 the pair danced their way to New York, where Ted met Ruth and the two were soon partners in both dance and in life.
The newlywed pair returned to Los Angeles where they established their “Denishawn” school of dance in the spring of 1915 in a Mediterranean-style home at Sixth & St. Paul streets, previously the estate of architect John Parkinson. Two years later they had outgrown this space and moved to larger quarters at 616 Alvarado St. in the old Westlake School for Girls across from Westlake Park. In 1924 they added a second studio at 1757 S. Highland Ave. in Hollywood.
The movie studios were moving out west to Hollywood too, and sent their actresses to the Denishawn School. Ruth also did some movie work, including the choreography for the Babylonian dances in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.
As of January 1926 the Denishawn School was located in a temporary home at 932 S. Grand Ave., which normally operated as Solomon’s Penny Dance De Luxe. Their new studio at 621 S. Vermont Ave. opened in October, 1926. It featured a tree-lined outdoor studio, screened from the view of neighboring gardens by apple green curtains. Ruth and Ted weren’t in town for the grand opening- they were away touring. The school was left in the capable hands of other instructors during their absence.
In late November, 1926, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and a Denishawn troupe of 40 dancers returned from an 18 month tour of the orient. Almost immediately they booked into the Philharmonic Auditorium to debut for Los Angeles some of their new eastern dances.
After 1926, St Denis and Shawn shifted their focus to the east coast and their New York dancing school. The couple also began to go their separate ways professionally and personally, although they never divorced. Ruth maintained a school in Los Angeles where, still dancing into her 80s, she died in 1968. Ted died in Florida in 1972.
For more information: see Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis by Suzanne Shelton (1991); and “How The Bowl Danced: An Era of Exploration” by Naima Prevots in The Hollywood Bowl: Tales of Summer Nights (1999).