Edwin M. Shawn made his entry into the world on October 21, 1891 in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was an editor for the  Kansas City Star newspaper. His mother was a descendant of Edwin Booth, the famous American tragedian. On the paternal side Shawn was descended from a German revolutionist of 1848 who subsequently  immigrated to the United States to escape persecution.
Ted Shawn in Prometheus Bound, 1933
Photograph by Ralph Hawkins

When Ted Shawn was still a young boy tragedy struck when he lost his mother, brother and a favorite uncle to untimely deaths over an interval of two years. Shortly thereafter he moved with his father to Denver, Colorado where he would complete high school and enter the University of Colorado. He was preparing to enter the Christian ministry. During his third year at the university Shawn became gravely ill with diphtheria. During his long recovery, which included learning to walk again and strengthening his body, particularly his legs which had become lame, Shawn determined to become a dancer.

In 1912 Shawn moved to Los Angeles where he established his own modest school of dance. With a group of three other dancers Shawn led a small company which gave ensemble concerts and the occasional solo performance. He opened a dance school and soon afterward joined forces with Norma Gould with whom he made one of the first dance films, Dance of the Ages. Emboldened by his success, Shawn took his little company across the country in 1913-1914 on a tour of 19 towns and cities, culminating with performances in New York. Here he would meet Ruth St. Denis who became his dancing partner. They were married on August 13, 1914. Together they founded the Denishawn schools and the Denishawn dancers.

The contributions of Shawn to American dance history, both as an independent artist and as co-director of Denishawn, include his establishment of dance technique which he considered necessary to the evolution of male dancing. His use of thematic material began with pure American influences including aboriginal, folk and popular culture. Shawn pioneered the concept of non-doggerel music and the commissioning of music especially for dancing. He introduced ethnic dance forms into American dance training, and the creation of dances especially suitable for church services. He is remembered best, perhaps, for the formation of an all-male company of dancers who influenced and assuaged American prejudice against men dancers.

Shawn created a dance technique built upon essentially masculine actions. Using themes of the American Indian, the early American pioneer, the Spanish conquistador, the American Negro, the American folk dancer, and contemporary seaman, laborer, politician and artist, Shawn ignored traditional ballet music.

In 1933, following the formation of his men's group which he called Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, Shawn began a seven-year adventure performing at home and abroad where he clearly established in the minds of his audiences the right of men to dance. Using his Jacob's Pillow farm in Lee, Massachusetts as headquarters, Shawn opened a summer school of dance. Jacob's
Ted Shawn in "Four Dances Based On Amercian Folk Music."
1930 Photograph by Rudlof

Pillow Dance Festival remains one of America's most venerable and enduring venues for the dance. In the first two decades of Jacob's Pillow as a dance center, Shawn presided over premieres of more than one hundred new dances, many solos but others major productions. As an impresario, Shawn introduced American audiences to dozens of leading dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Celtic Ballet of Scotland, England's Ballet Rampert, and numerous other major companies and soloists.

Throughout his long career in dance Shawn created an unprecedented number of dance works, ballets, ensembles, trios, duets, and solos for his own companies, for Denishawn, for vaudeville units, and for students. His ballet creations include Xochitl, Cuadro Flamenco, The Feather of the Dawn, and Job. Shawn's personal dance solos include Invocation to the Thunderbird, Gnossienne, Flamenco Dances, Death of Adonis, Mevlevi Dervish, Cosmic Dances of Shiva, Prometheus Bound, The Divine Idiot, Four American Folk Dances, St. Francis, and many solos created from Denishawn ballets and programs for his men's group.

For his ensemble of men dancers, Shawn created divertissement programs and three full-length works: O Libertad,, Dance of the Ages, and The Dome. Among his published works are the following books: Ruth St. Denis: Pioneer and Prophet: Gods Who Dance; The American Ballet; Fundamentals of a Dance Education; Dance We Must; How Beautiful Upon the Mountain; Every Little Movement; 33 Years of American dance; and One Thousand and One Night Stands.

Ted Shawn was honored with the degree of Master of Physical Education from Springfield College, the Capezio Award (1957), and the Knighthood in the Order of Dannelbrog, conferred upon him by King Frederick IX of Denmark (1957). This great American pioneer of dance died in Orlando, Florida on January 9, 1972.

 
Ted Shawn in Siamese Dance, 1920
Photograph by Bigelow
Ted Shawn in Osage-Pawnee,
1930 Photograph by Binder