Gender in Modern Dance As Expressed By Ted Shawn and Martha Graham

In the introduction of the book, The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, author Selma Jeanne Cohen draws comparison between the Caterpillar’s question to Alice as she stepped into Wonderland and investigation of the modern dance identity. The question was a simple three words, “Who are you?,” but Alice’s response resonates. She replied, “ I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” 

Modern dance’s answer to “Who are you?” has diversified, metamorphosed, and magnified immensely. This is due largely in part to the distinctiveness and passion of the pioneers of the art form, but also the coinciding transformations of a country it was rooted in. Americans Ted Shawn and Martha Graham – both innovators of modern dance in their own rights – developed varying and similar ideas about gender expression in modern dance. Presumably, this is because of their vastly different experiences of their genders and understanding of identity of the sexes.

As a male in the 1920s and 1930s, Ted Shawn strove to exemplify the “masculine ideal” through the creation of an all male company that performed works focused on physical strength, mental control, and endurance like Kinetic Molpai.

After seeing Shawn’s wife,  Ruth St. Denis,  perform, Martha Graham trained at the Denishawn dance school predominantly under Ted Shawn’s direction. However, to contrast Shawn’s focus on the male perspective and male experience, Graham choreographed exclusively from the female perspective. To qualify, however, Graham did not follow Shawn’s outline for gender specific movement.

Shawn felt that feminine movements and dance experience should be comprised of movement in a small range and “concave receptivity” or in a circular, contracted position. While opposingly, Shawn felt men should dance with expansive movement and position themselves upright and with a forward thrust.

As a female, Graham challenged the long-held expectations of movement for both genders. She did this by striving to reveal the exertion behind dance. She desired to show the labor in movement and the concentration it took to execute positions. This is a revolt not only against Shawn’s idea of the feminine movement vocabulary, but the long-held ideas of movement regardless of gender in the entire dance community. Graham showed strong female characters that displayed bravery, strength, and resilience while doing movements many early critics described as “ugly.”

While Shawn appears to many as a chauvinist, it could be argued that he expanded the horizons of dance exponentially because of this extremism. Historically, dance has celebrated “feminine” movements, costuming, and dancers. From the time of Louis XIV, male dancers were largely considered to be effeminate.  Shawn challenged those ideas and as mentioned, expanded dance audiences to even the most conservative of people. Perhaps his suspiciously sexist remarks functioned in the World War I America that was consumed with nationalism and heroism.

The ideas of gender expression by Shawn and Graham are large pieces of modern dance’s response to “Who are you?” In the always changing American culture it propagates in, modern dance’s groundwork for gender illustration paved the way for new artists to accept or reject the gender constructs of the society in which they exist.


Works Cited

Cohen, Selma Jeanne. “The Caterpillar’s Question.” Introduction. The Modern Dance; Seven Statements of Belief. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1966. 1-14. Print.

Jackson, Lawrence. “Modern Dance: The Beginning Years.” Dance History II. The
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. 19 Jan. 2016. Lecture.

Rossen, Rebecca. “Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn – Dance Teacher Magazine.” Dance
Teacher Magazine. N.p., 01 Oct. 2007. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

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