A dance legend goes shoe shopping

With flair and regal bearing, Ruth St. Denis made every excursion a performance.

Ruth St. Denis (CA. 1930)

When I need a gift or a pair of shoes these days, I browse online or drive to the mall. Seldom do I see a familiar face behind a cash register. Indeed, it's often hard to find anyone to help at all.

Not so in times past, when a shopping expedition meant dressing up in a suit and gloves for a bus ride downtown to one or another of the venerable department stores.

One such venture occurred many years ago, when I took Miss Ruth St. Denis on a shopping excursion to the Jordan Marsh department store. A contemporary of Isadora Duncan, she was considered a founding matriarch of American modern dance.

"Miss Ruth," as she was universally called, first danced barefoot in New York in 1905 when she appeared veiled in the costume of a temple dancer from India. Like Ms. Duncan, Miss Ruth considered performing a higher calling, motivated by spiritual inspiration. She spent three years in Europe before World War I, but unlike Duncan, returned to the United States to make her reputation. With her husband, Ted Shawn, she created Denishawn, the first American dance troupe, and toured cities large and small across America during the 1920s. Martha Graham was one of the prize pupils at the school they established in California.

By the mid-1960s when we met, however, Miss Ruth had been forgotten because generations of American modern dancers – including Martha Graham – had changed the art form she had fostered. Miss Ruth was then in her 80s; I was a graduate student, assigned to be her driver and companion for a week during her farewell tour of New England.

One morning she asked me to come early, as she needed a new pair of shoes to comfort her feet, tender from decades of dancing on stages that were hard and uneven. I arrived at the old Hotel Touraine, to walk her around the corner to Washington Street, where Jordan Marsh stood.

Miss Ruth wore her everyday outfit, constructed by her longtime costumer, Adolphine Rott. The black jersey dress was high-necked and long sleeved, caught tightly under her ribs, and flowed to the ground with at least 20 yards of fabric that swirled around her ankles as she walked. Over this she wore a long black cape topped by a D'Artagnan hat, complete with a feather floating out behind her long white hair. After handing me her purse to take care of logistics, we started out. To say that Miss Ruth turned more than a few heads is to understate the startling effect she had on truck drivers, cabbies, and other passersby.

When we arrived at the shoe department, Miss Ruth seated herself grandly on a chair, made her wishes known in a voice as regal as that of a reigning monarch, and settled back to enjoy the process of being served. The eyes of our saleswoman gleamed with excitement as she entered into the game.

Later, after Miss Ruth had picked out a pair of shoes, I followed our clerk to the desk where she rang up the purchase. The woman was beside herself.

"I don't know who she is," she said to me while wrapping the shoes, "but she's a very great lady, isn't she?"

I assured her that Miss Ruth was as close to royalty as the performing arts allowed in America, and could picture her retelling the experience of waiting on Miss Ruth over and over again.

That daytime costume has figured large in our family's collective memory. Later in the week, after taking Miss Ruth to speak at a local girls' school, I invited her home to dinner. I lived with my husband and our 6-year-old son, Michael, in a small apartment with little room for guests. However, I asked Miss Ruth if she'd like to take a rest, given the exertions of the afternoon, and expected her to use our bedroom. I had carefully cleaned it, even putting out the new bedspread.

"No," she replied. "I'll just rest on the couch." So she settled herself in our living room, taking enormous care in removing her cloak and hat, seating herself, and arranging the long draperies of her skirt across the length of the sofa before slowly sinking back on the pillows. All the time she watched the effect she was having on Michael, who had pulled up his three-legged stool and was looking on.

He sat there for the entire time she rested; she was well aware of the small person next to her, another fan she'd made for life.

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