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Ruth St. Denis is considered to be one of the pioneers of American modern dance. She was a performer and choreographer often mentioned alongside the historical giants of modern dance like Isadora Duncan and St. Denis’s own protégé, Martha Graham. Ruth St. Denis’s Eastern-inspired and ornate dance spectacles earned her significant notoriety and enthralled audiences. St. Denis certainly contributed to the evolution of the American modern dance tradition; however, her success also highlights the presence of Orientalist thought in Western culture. St. Denis focused much of her work on what she referred to as Oriental Dancing. Orientalism refers to the idea that the East is spiritual, sensual, and intriguing. Orientalism overlooks the wide variety of cultures and nations in the Eastern Hemisphere and conveniently names them all as exotic other, thus degrading and oversimplifying them. An analysis of two of St. Denis’s most prominent works, Incense and Radha, reveals how Orientalism insidiously affects the perception of both race and gender in dance spectacle while reinforcing imperialist attitudes of Western superiority.
Comments from Mentors
“Krista Kee’s research, 'Dance, The Divine, and The Devious Other: Orientalism and the Presentation of Race and Gender in the Work of Ruth St. Denis,' began in our Dance History class in her junior year, on a day when the students were working hands-on with archival materials. She found a Dance Magazine from the 1920s and was shocked to see the apparent misrepresentation of Eastern cultures that was not at that time considered problematic. I have a distinct memory of her facial expression slowly distorting as she read an article about renowned dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. It was all the motivation she needed. During the research process, Krista needed little assistance from me. She’d found a primary source that inspired a multi-layered analysis, which tied historical figures and the dance of the period to Orientalism and Critical Theory. I provided the source materials, but she truly drove the research. Krista, who graduated from TCU in 2016 with a degree in Modern Dance and Political Science, has continually said that she’d like to be Secretary of State one day. Based on the determination, heart, and skill with which she approached this research, I think we’d all be fortunate to have her representing us.”