WOMEN IN DANCE

An American dancer inspired by Hindu rituals and mythology helped shape modern dance

Ruth St Denis blended her fascination for exoticism and spirituality with dance.

She is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern Western dance, is credited with introducing Eastern dance styles to the West, and her first ever choreography was inspired from stories of Hindu mythology. However, though her East-inspired choreographies were not particularly culturally accurate or authentic, they fed the audience’s fascination with the Orient.

Ruth St Denis was born in 1879 and grew up on a farm in New Jersey, US. She started learning dance when she was very young, and moved to New York in her teens where she started her professional career in the city’s vaudeville houses and dime museums. Her stage name back then was: The Only Ruth. A Broadway producer and director, David Belasco, soon spotted her, and signed her on with his company, with which she toured the US and Europe.

Ruth St Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).

Denis said that she felt the spiritual elements in nature from a young age. In her autobiography, Denis wrote: “When as a child running over the fields of our farm I felt the joy of life pulsing through me, when I felt the warm earth under my feet and the great golden sun bathing my body, then I knew life as a magical reality”.

Denis later started a dance company, Denishawn, along with her husband Ted Shawn, which produced the next generation of modern dancers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

Ruth St Denis in 'The Yogi'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'The Yogi'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'The Peacock'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'The Peacock'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).

Denis believed dance to be a spiritual expression, and her choreography and repertoire reflected her life-long interest in spirituality and exoticism. Her first solo production, Incense, was based on the incense burning ritual as practiced by Hindus. Her body moving fluidly amid ascending spirals of smoke made for a mesmerising performance. Some of her other iconic solo performances are The Cobras and Radha, which only further emphasised her commitment to integrating dance into spiritual practices (Hindu rituals in particular).

Denis draped saris, wore long skirts, elaborate head dresses and ornaments for her performances. One of her productions also touched upon the form of dance practiced by the nautch girls of India. Titled East Indian Nautch Dance, the choreography had Denis dressed in a black and gold layered hoop skirt and a blouse, similar to the ghaghra and choli worn by nautch girls.

Ruth St Denis in 'The Incense'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'The Incense'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'East Indian Nautch Dance'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'East Indian Nautch Dance'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'East Indian Nautch Dance'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St Denis in 'East Indian Nautch Dance'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).

Denis also incorporated influences from Egyptian and African dance forms and religious practices into her performances.

In an essay on Denis, Thom Hecht, a Harvard Fellow, wrote: “St. Denis’s drive to foster the divine and spiritual within the human accompanied her throughout life… [Her] repertoire addressed a select audience, which enjoyed the eclectic mixture of eroticism and sensuality that was rooted in her deep passion for spiritual practices”.

In The Cobras, which is set in a street in India, Denis was the snake-charmer, captivating the audiences with her movements, the emerald rings on her finger glinting like the eyes of a snake. While, in Radha, she engaged with her understanding of Indian temple dances.

Ruth St. Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St. Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St. Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).
Ruth St. Denis in 'Radha'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library).

Though not particularly accurate, her dances were expressive of the themes she perceived in a culture that she was mostly a stranger to.

Denis died at the age of 89, but left behind a rich legacy that is till date a part of the repertoire of many dance companies, with her signature solos becoming a part of the The Art Of The Solo, a showcase of famous solos of modern dance pioneers.

Postcards, made and sold in Germany, of Ruth St. Denis in 'The Cobras'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library)
Postcards, made and sold in Germany, of Ruth St. Denis in 'The Cobras'. (Image courtesy: New York Public Library)
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.