Ruth St. Denis

Visionary for Conscious Dance
by Julie Alessio

If we were to have a saint (or a devil) for the modern conscious dance movement Ruth St. Denis would certainly be hanging on our walls, standing in our alters, and lying at our bedside table. 

Ruth St. Denis, often called Miss Ruth, was a paradox, a poet and a strong visionary for sacred dance.  At the turn of the 20th century she created a new form she called the Divine Dance.  She recognized that drama addressed human conflict but did not aid the soul in awakening.  “…the awakening—infinitely more difficult—is also infinitely more valuable.  The dance of the awakening must evolve its own newness, rhythm and form.” (pg. 94, Wisdom Comes Dancing)   While religion and psychology attempted to overcome human problems through the mind, Miss Ruth envisioned a connection to truth and self integration through the physical body.  “To know truth’s manifestation, however, to actually realize in flesh and blood the effects of this knowledge, we must learn to recognize the relationship between soul and the body which so inextricably exists, and of which the breath is its symbol and sign.” (pg. 94, Wisdom Comes Dancing)  She spent her life weaving her love of art and drama with her deeper knowing of the body as sacred.

As a testament to this woven work, Miss Ruth left behind over a hundred boxes of her writings and photographs to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).  Some of her work has been explored and shared in the book Wisdom Comes Dancing edited by Kamae A Miller.  This beautiful book offers us a glimpse into the life of Miss Ruth, her controversial career, her belief in the importance of women as peace-makers, and her development of the Divine Dance.  Ruths’ insights continue to inform sacred dance today:

The body is a neutral instrument which reflects the minutest fraction of the consciousness that               governs it.  Every gesture reveals the level of consciousness that we have attained.  It reflects in its rhythms and forms of motion either realization of Life vibrant, full of ecstasy, beauty, and continuity, or it reflects our negative states of fear, hatred, resentment, and false egotism.
(pg. 20, Wisdom Comes Dancing)

Many of us are practicing and/or facilitating movement practices that move us from fear to fluidity, from hatred to harmony, and from egotism into emptiness.  These dances are powerful and help individuals live vibrant, beautiful and full lives.  Yet, many questions are on the horizon for our survival as a species.

At this critical juncture in time - where humans are changing the Earth so drastically that human life may be extinguished – what dances have yet to be danced?  Ruth states, “Until we learn in terms of experience instead of profits, we shall have neither a beautiful art of the dance nor a finer civilization.” (pg. 19, Wisdom Comes Dancing)  The experiences we create and live are where we need to focus our attention.   How do we continue to shift our experiences for the beauty of the dance and the higher survival of our species? 

Ruth St. Denis realized that, “There are thousands of rhythms with which we are unacquainted as yet which would give us innocent and beautiful joys.” (pg. 40, Wisdom Comes Dancing)  The dance helps us access some of these rhythms and hence life experiences that we have yet to touch.  “We think we know life because we know the small repeated rhythms of our common days, while all the while the very air is filled with heavenly music for our listening and a thousand new visions of life and love await our understanding and our courage.” (pg.  96, Wisdom Comes Dancing)  Now is the time to  dance, listen and open courageously to new motion, new visions of life and to new love.

Ruth St. Denis held a vision for what she called the Divine Dance.  Its primary function was to activate the powers of truth and beauty.  “As the sun fills its purpose of being by shining and only incidentally blesses the earth with its warmth and light, so is our life in spirit fulfilled with its own radiation of beauty and only incidentally affects and inspires its beholders.” (pg. 36, Wisdom Comes Dancing)  Through dance we remember our innate truth and beauty and start to let it filter through our pores and shine once again.  “In stillness, we know, we feel, we realize.” (pg. 54)  Our practices take us on a journey, riding a spectrum of movement waves from fast to slow and moving to still. The resulting radiating person, filled with spirit, goes out into relationships, families, communities and the world.

Perhaps, taking our spirit filled self out into the world is the key to our species survival.  “As we rise higher in the understanding of ourselves, the national and racial dissonances will be forgotten in the universal rhythm of truth and love.” (pg. 56) The divine dance is one way to higher understanding and thereby unity and harmony.  As many of us realize - dancing is a way to move in life with more awareness and connection – freeing ourselves from self and society-imposed limitations. “The limitations of our senses are the grey stones of our prison walls.  There is one way to escape—one way to enter the open country of the kingdom and that is to fly—to fly over walls with wings of spirit and in the ecstasy of what we dance and sing our visions of the soul.” (pg. 185)  Miss Ruth flew on in 1968, yet her spirit lives on in her words, her art and the dance.

Suggested Readings

Denis, Ruth St.  An Unfinished Life (an autobiography selling for $80 to over $2,000.00!) 1939.

Miller, Kamae A. ed.  Wisdom Comes Dancing (Michigan:  Thompson-Shore, Inc., 1997).

Terry, Walter.  Miss Ruth:  The “More Living Life” of Ruth St. Denis (New York:  Dodd, Mead & Co., 1969).


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