Louise Brooks was passionate about dancing, even as a young teen. It was how she expressed herself, but more than that, and it was through dance that she could envision a life beyond Kansas.
Brooks was born and raised in Cherryvale, a small town in the Southeastern part of the state. That is where she first started performing in public. Her family moved to Independence in 1918, and a year later, they moved to Wichita, the largest and most cultured city in Kansas. After this second move, Brooks and her Mother sought out the best local instructors, and found one who had trained on the East Coast. Brooks’ Mother also made sure she performed in public at almost every opportunity.
A precocious teen, Brooks immersed herself in dance. She studied and practiced, and even choreographed pieces that were performed at a local movie theater prior to a film as well as at her high school. Brooks also attended dance concerts. It is known, for example, that she attended a Wichita performance of the noted Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet from Chicago. On another occasion, Brooks and other students from her dance class traveled to see the famous Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, who was performing in a nearby town.
As a youth, Brooks also attended a few performances by the Denishawn Dance Company. Led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Denishawn was considered the leading modern dance troupe in America. They were very well known in their time, and founder Ruth St. Denis was, arguably, one of the most esteemed performers in America. In 1918, Brooks’ Mother took the 12 year old Brooks to see Ruth St. Denis perform at the Orpheum Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. (Ted Shawn did not perform, as he was then serving in the army). In 1920, Brooks saw the Ruth St. Denis Concert Dancers (Ted Shawn had by then rejoined the group) at the Wichita Forum. And in 1921, Brooks and her mother saw Ted Shawn (assisted by Martha Graham and others) dance at the Crawford Theater in Wichita. Intent on meeting the dancers, Brooks and her Mother went backstage, and there, they met Ted Shawn. Impressed, he invited the teen to study with Denishawn the following Summer.
In the June of 1922, at the age of 15 and with her parent’s blessing, Brooks left Wichita to study at the Denishawn school in New York City. [Brooks’ move to New York is depicted in Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel, The Chaperone, which is the basis for the 2018 film of the same name from PBS Masterpiece.] In Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks recalled her lessons, which consisted of Shawn demonstrating “his matchless balance and body control,” as well as those given by Charles Weideman, who took dancers through barre and ballet exercises. “During a sweltering July and August, I went to weekday classes from ten to twelve in the morning and from one to three in the afternoon,” Brooks recounted. The hard work paid off. Within a month, Brooks had been admitted to the more demanding advanced classes. By the end of the summer, she was accepted into Denishawn’s traveling company. Though just a teen, she would train alongside such fellow Denishawn dancers (and future greats) as Martha Graham, Charles Weideman, and Doris Humphrey, as well as company founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Each are prominent figures in the history of American dance, as is the group’s musical accompanist at the time, the noted choreographer, composer, pianist and critic, Louis Horst.
Brooks was a member of Denishawn during its “Golden Era” and for two of its busiest seasons, the 1922-1923 and 1923-1924 tours, traveling with the company and dancing in some 130 small towns and large cities across the United States and Canada. Each season counted approximately 180 performances in around 200 days. [The itinerary for each season may be found by following the links below. Also linked are annotated bibliographies of articles and reviews for most every stop on the two tours. Over the years, the LBS has researched Brooks’ time with Denishawn and has acquired a mass of material, including articles, reviews, advertisements and other clippings for just about every performance. The LBS has also acquired a number of related images, as well as a brochures and programs. Did Louise Brooks and Denishawn visit your city or town? Find out here!]
1922-1923 season 1923-1924 season
tour schedule tour schedule
tour bibliography tour bibliography
Starting in New York in September, the Denishawn dancers traveled by train, performing up and down the East Coast (from Maine to Maryland) as well as all around the mid-West and South and as far West as Denver, Colorado, before making their way back east to New York in the Spring. It was a long, grueling tour, as the dancers performed nearly every day (the concerts lasted as long as three hours), and sometimes twice a day when they offered a matinee. Included among their hundreds of stops were civic auditoriums and concert halls, theaters, opera houses, high school gymnasiums, and hippodromes in Akron, Dayton, Grand Rapids, Green Bay, Ithaca, Niagara Falls, Peoria, and Springfield, as well as Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. The Denishawn Dance Company performed at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. There was a long stand at the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City, and return engagements at the Boston Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and National Theater in Washington D.C.
Generally speaking, the company played to capacity crowds just about wherever they went, be it the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Denishawn was a favorite in college towns) or what seemed their second home, Town Hall in New York City (where they once gave 12 consecutive performances). They often received rare reviews, and the press showered them with accolades: one typical headline read, “Denishawn Troupe Scores Triumph,” another “Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn Thrill Audience.” The company was likewise applauded on those occasions when they ventured into Canada, where they danced at leading venues in Toronto (historic Massey Hall), Montreal, Ottawa, and elsewhere.
As pioneers of modern dance, Denishawn pretty much had the field to themselves. There were no other touring groups of dancers. As something new and unfamiliar, they were also met with a certain amount of skepticism. This was a time when there were very few dance critics in the United States, and in smaller American towns and cities, there were few reporters who covered the arts. Once, according to Shawn, a sports reporter was sent to cover a Denishawn performance, and coverage of the event ended up on the sports page!
At a time when no self-respecting girl would display their legs on the stage, Shawn later wrote, St. Denis “freed the female human body from the ugly, crippling, unhealthy clothes that prevailed” around the turn of the 20th century. And in doing so, she endured “ridicule, antagonism, even persecution.” Even more importantly, Shawn added, “Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis freed movement itself from the stylized, artificial crystallization of 19th century ballet, and from the meaningless acrobatics of commercial theater.”
On a few occasions, the bold aesthetic innovations of the Denishawn company were misunderstood, and even criticized. In his autobiography, Shawn recalled the time they received a letter critical of their “lascivious” dancing–some found their loose costumes, bare legs, and free-form movement too suggestive. Shawn also noted the time the company’s Providence, Rhode Island engagement was cancelled by order of the local police commissioner on the grounds of public nudity, despite the fact that the commissioner had never seen Denishawn, and that the dancers weren’t really nude. However, what were exposed were their feet. The group often performed, based on the Delsarte method, with out any sort of shoe or slipper, and this too was seen as a little too “much.” Their Baltimore performance was criticized because the dancers had dirty feet, which Shawn noted, were gotten while dancing on the dusty old stage of the city’s historic Lyric theater.
For Brooks, their were more high points than low. When Denishawn returned to Wichita in the fall of 1922 (just a few months after Brooks had joined the company), the local newspaper ran a feature photo titled, “Wichita Girl to Appear Here With World Famous Dancers.” Their November 18th performance was greeted by much applause, and according to a local newspaper account, the teen-age Brooks was presented with “many flower tributes.” Following the performance, Brooks’ parents hosted a dinner party at their Wichita home, with members of the company in attendance. One can imagine Brooks felt especially proud having returned home “a dancer” just a few days after her 16th birthday.
The Denishawn company received a considerable amount of press. And though she was just a junior member, Brooks’ name appeared in print on a number of occasions. Shortly after joining the company in 1922, for example, Brooks was referenced in a September 23rd article which appeared in the New York Sun, marking the first time she was mentioned in print as a member of the famed dance company. A few weeks later, on October 11th, she received her first mention in the New York Times. And on October 12th, Brooks was included in two images in the Musical Courier, a prestigious trade journal devoted to classical music, dance and the performing arts. Less than two years later, another trade journal, Musical America, would single out Brooks for her spirited performance.
Usually, such newspaper mentions were little more than naming the dancers in the company. But on a few occasions, critics took notice of the Brooks and praised her efforts. In 1922, for example, the Nashville Tennessean wrote, “In this, Miss Schaeffer, together with Misses Louise Brooks and Pearl Wheeler were picturesque in their whirlwind representations of flame and destruction.” In 1923, Mississippi’s Vicksburg Daily Herald was even more effusive, writing “The young ladies of the company–Martha Graham, Betty May, May Bennett, May Lynn, Lenore Schaeffer, Louise Brooks, are truly exquisite, beautiful fairies, light as thistle-down, living and breathing the dance they interpret.” In 1924, in an article titled “Many See Denishawns,” the Kansas City Times simply noted “. . . the audience recalled the principals, Mr. Shawn and Louise Brooks, many times.”
There were other brushes with fame, though of a different sort. On one occasion, Ruth St. Denis brought the Denishawn dancers to a performance of her greatest rival, the legendary Isadora Duncan. Brooks would record her observations about the “mother of dance” in her diary. What went unrecorded was another close encounter, in January, 1923, when the Denishawn company danced at Bardavon in Poughkeepsie, New York. Unknown to Brooks, another young female dancer inspired by Denishawn and in search of an artistic life was in the audience; that other young dancer was the future fashion model and photographer Lee Miller.
As much as Brooks’ two seasons with Denishawn were a job (she was a paid member of the company, earning $40.00 per week), they also represented a time of growth for the teenager. She met new people, was exposed to new ideas and art, mingled with accomplished dancers, heard great music (the company often danced to significant modern and contemporary composers–from Erik Satie to Edward MacDowell), and traveled through large parts of the United States. It must have been a thrilling experience for someone so young.
Of all her fellow dancers, Brooks looked up to Martha Graham the most. In later years, she told Kenneth Tynan, “Graham[‘s] genius I absorbed to the bone during the years we danced together on tour.” Brooks, apprently, also made an impression on Graham. In her autobiography, Blood Memory, Graham wrote, “Louise Brooks was a member of the Denishawn Company and breathtakingly beautiful. She wore her hair always in that pageboy. Everything that she did was beautiful. I was utterly absorbed by her beauty and what she did. Even before she was introduced to me, I remember watching her across the room as she stood up with a group of girls from Denishawn, all dressed alike. Louise, though, was the absolute standout, the one. She possessed a quality of strength, an inner power that one felt immediately in her presence. She was very much a loner and terribly self-destructive. Of course, it didn’t help that everyone gave her such a difficult time. I suppose I identified with her as an outsider. I befriended her, and she always seemed to be watching me perform, watching me in the dressing room. She later said, ‘I learned how to act by watching Martha Graham dance.”
In the mid-1920s, the Denishawn company typically numbered as many as 10 or 12 dancers, not counting its founders. During her first season, Brooks was one of a handful of the ensemble dancers. She never soloed, but usually danced with others in small groupings. During her second year, Brooks progressed, and was given featured roles in a few pieces, including a Native American-themed piece opposite Shawn, “The Feather of the Dawn” (the first complete North American Indian ballet ever created for an American audience). Martha Graham thought Brooks stood out in this piece, and so did newspaper critics. The Austin Statesman commented, “Miss Brooks looked lovely as the Indian bride.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote “There was much intelligence and appeal in the performance of Louise Brooks, who danced opposite Mr. Shawn in the Hopi pastoral.” While the Kalamazoo Gazette stated “Miss Brooks came in for honors as the daughter of the Indian chief.” There were, as well, more shout-outs and praise in the Louisville Courier-Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Washington Times.
Brooks was coming into her own as a dancer. About another piece in which she was featured, the Springfield Union singled out Brooks, stating “All of them charmed, particularly … the Japanese lantern dance by Louise Brooks.” On another occasion, the Topeka Daily State Journal wrote, “Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude introduced Ted Shawn, who, with Louise Brooks, Pauline Lawrence and Lenore Schaeffer, not only danced marvelously, but did some strong pantomime work.” Brooks was, as well, one of a small group to dance a groundbreaking new work called “Sonata Tragica.” It was performed without music, making it the first modern American dance to be performed in complete silence.
Despite her development as a dancer, Brooks’ time with Denishawn would come to an end. She rebelled against St. Denis’ control over the company, which included not only their dancing, but also their reading, spiritual development, and personal behavior. In a 1927 interview, Brooks said she considered St. Denis strict, “She wouldn’t let us smoke or eat candy or stay up late or anything. We did nothing but work and dance.” Brooks broke rules set for the dancers by sneaking out and meeting boys. In May of 1924, at the end of the second season, a long-simmering antagonism between Brooks and the company founder came to a head. St. Denis, one of the most renowned artists of her time, dismissed 17-year old Brooks, telling her in front of the other dancers that Brooks possessed a superior attitude, “I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver.” St. Denis thought Brooks a good student, but also thought her unwilling to work hard and become the great dancer she might have been. Her dismissal left a bitter and lasting impression.
Dance remained at the heart of Brooks’ sense of self, even after she achieved fame as an actress. In fact, Brooks once remarked that she thought of her self as a dancer, and not as an actress. Still, for Brooks, her two seasons with Denishawn must have seemed unfinished business. In 1949, she reunited with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn when she saw them perform at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In later years, Brooks corresponded with Shawn (they also spoke on the phone), while St. Denis remained a person of continuing interest (as is evident from the entries in Brooks’ notebooks). When Brooks was drafting an autobiographical novel recounting her early life, she acknowledged St. Denis’ admonition, giving the book’s final chapter the title, “The Silver Salver.”
Unfortunately, there is no known footage of Louise Brooks from her time as a Denishawn dancer. However, if you are interested in learning more, check out the various video clips which come up on a search of YouTube–especially this short five part documentary video, the “Ruth St. Denis Project.” Though vintage imagery and an audio interview, it provides much background information. Here is part one, which should link to part two, part three, part four, and part five. Otherwise, the Barry Paris biography of Brooks contains the best account of the actress’ time as a member of Denishawn. The following works were likewise consulted in writing this page. Each are recommended, though some may be hard to find.
St. Denis, Ruth. Ruth St. Denis, an Unfinished Life; An Autobiography. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939.
— includes passages on Denishawn, though no mention of Brooks
Schlundt, Christena. The Role of Ruth St. Denis in the History of American Dance, 1906-1922. Claremont College: California, 1958.
— contains a passing reference to Brooks (perhaps the first reference to Brooks in an academic thesis)
Shawn, Ted, and Ted Shawn Gray Poole. One Thousand and One Night Stands. New York: Doubleday, 1960.
— contains a passing reference to Brooks as a member of Denishawn
Shawn, Ted. Every Little Movement: A Book About François Delsarte. New York: Dance Horizons, 1963.
— the philosophy behind Denishawn
Terry, Walter. The Golden Book of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Anniversary Committee, 1964.
— contains a photograph and reference to Brooks as a member of Denishawn
Terry, Walter. Miss Ruth: The “More Living Life” of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.
— includes passages on the Denishawn era, though no mention of Brooks
Terry, Walter. Ted Shawn, Father of American Dance: A Biography. New York: Dial Press, 1976.
— no mention of Brooks, though the book contains useful perspective on Denishawn
Humphrey, Doris, and Selma Jeanne Cohen. Doris Humphrey, an Artist First: An Autobiography. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1977.
— one passing mention of Brooks; though the usefulness of this book may be found in its original perspectives on Denishawn
Sherman, Jane. The Drama of Denishawn Dance. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
— contains two references and an image of Brooks
Shelton, Suzanne. Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981.
— contains a couple of passing references to Brooks (this is a really fine book, a great read!)
Sherman, Jane. Denishawn: The Enduring Influence. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
— Brooks is briefly discussed and a letter from the actress to the author is quoted; one illustration includes Brooks
Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. New York: Knopf, 1984.
— Brooks’ autobiographical essays include a look back at her time with Denishawn
Kendall, Elizabeth. Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance. Berkeley: University of California, 1984.
— an informative work which gives background to the Denishawn era
Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. New York: Knopf, 1989.
— contains a chapter on Brooks’ time with Denishawn
Conner, Lynne. Spreading the Gospel of the Modern Dance: Newspaper Dance Criticism in the United States, 1850-1934. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
— contains a passing reference to Brooks as a member of Denishawn
Graham, Martha. Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1991.
— Brooks is recounted in a long passage, and included in one group photograph
Sherman, Jane. Soaring: The Diary and Letters of a Denishawn Dancer in the Far East, 1925-1926. Middletown, Conneticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1991.
— Brooks is mentioned in two letters written in 1926 by the author (suggesting she was still remembered by the troupe)
Soares, Janet Mansfield. Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1992.
— contains a passing reference to Brooks as a member of Denishawn
Coffman, Elizabeth Ann. Women in Motion: Dance, Gesture, and Spectacle in Film, 1900-1935 (Loie Fuller, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker). University of Florida, 1995.
— unpublished Ph.D thesis
Norland, Betsy. Shall We Dance? The Choreography of Cultural Change: 1900-1945. Rutgers University: New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2005.
— contains reference to Brooks