Theses Bachelor's

Imagining the Dance of America, Regenerating "The Race": The Eugenic Fantasy of Ted Shawn

Burke, Siobhan Frances

This thesis examines how the work of Ted Shawn, pioneering American modern dancer, intersected with discourses of eugenics and evolutionary thought in the early 20th-century United States. I argue that in his efforts to elevate his art and win public acceptance, Shawn built his artistic vision around a “eugenic fantasy" (a term I borrow from the scholar Betsy Lee Nies), putting popular strains of racist, nativist thinking into practice. Looking not only at eugenics but also turn-of-the-century, pseudo-scientific beliefs about whiteness and masculinity, I trace the emergence of Shawn's creative projects as microcosms of a so-called "ideal race": first, a race of eugenic youth at Denishawn, the school he founded with his wife, Ruth St. Denis; and later, a race of muscular Anglo-Saxon men, in the form of his all-male company, the Men Dancers. It was only through exclusionist ideologies that Shawn sculpted the American dancer, particularly the male dancer, into an ideal that white Americans could admire—a model, even, to which they could aspire.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Dance (Barnard College)
Thesis Advisors
Kassanoff, Jennie A.
B.A., Barnard College
Published Here
September 3, 2019


Written in my senior year at Barnard College, this thesis won the 2008 John Demos Prize in American Studies. My adviser, Jennie Kassanoff, called it an "exceptional senior thesis [that] accomplishes what few undergraduate projects do: it opens up a whole new area of scholarly inquiry." The thesis has since been used as an example in Dance and American Studies senior seminars at Barnard.

More than a decade after writing it, I remain proud of this work, while noting what I would do differently today. In retrospect, I see that I define much too vaguely my approach to thinking about race, and I minimize the complex issue of Shawn's sexuality, all but dismissing this aspect of his identity. At times, in trying to get inside the logic of my subjects and articulate their points of view, I unintentionally (perhaps confusingly, for the reader) blur my perspective and theirs. I also regret not acknowledging that the racist, white supremacist ideologies of Shawn's time remain dangerously alive in the 21st century; they are not mere historical curiosities. Still, I hope my research proves helpful to other scholars, as something to learn from and build on. —Siobhan Burke, Aug. 2019

Keywords: dance, modern dance, eugenics, whiteness, masculinity, race, gender, Ted Shawn, Jacob's Pillow, Men Dancers, Ruth St. Denis, Denishawn