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Springfield College Connections: Ted Shawn

Patrick Kenney

sizeYes, by now students know that Springfield College is the birthplace of basketball, the place where volleyball found its name, where the YMCA became not just a place to avoid temptations but a profession sought out by young men across the country. Yet, there are many more roads that run through 263 Alden Street than just those.

Springfield College was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a commencement speech in 1965, right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. It is home to Olympians, medical scholars and people like Tom Waddell, who founded the Gay Olympic Games and was quite possibly the best athlete ever to wear the maroon and white.

And from 1932 to 1933, the father of modern dance called Springfield College his home.

Edwin Myers Shawn, known to most as Ted, was born on Oct. 21, 1891 in Kansas City, Mo. Shawn would grow up and become a pioneer in dance culture. However, if not for a battle with diphtheria, Shawn would never have been introduced to the world of dance.

At the age of 19, while studying to become a minister, Shawn was left temporarily paralyzed thanks in part to the infection. With the advice of his physician, he took up dancing as a means of physical therapy.

It was there that Shawn found his true passion in life. It was not mission work nor spreading the word of God; his true calling was on the dance floor.

Through dance, Shawn was able to captivate his audience and even himself. In 1914, he caught the eye of Ruth St. Denis, who he would later marry that same year.

Together, St. Denis and Shawn founded the Denishawn Dance Company, which travelled around the country training future dance stars, the likes of which include Martha Graham, Charles Weldman, Doris Humphrey and Jack Cole.

After having separated with St. Denis in 1930, Shawn bought a small rundown farm in the Berkshires called Jacob’s Pillow.

It was during the early 1930s where Shawn and Springfield College crossed paths.

In 1932, Springfield College president, Laurence Doggett, met Shawn and invited him to give a lecture/demonstration on campus. Inspired by what Shawn did and said, Doggett invited him to teach the spring semester of 1933.

In March of that same year, Shawn assembled an all-male dance concert, the first of its kind throughout the country, in Boston, which lead to the formation of the historic group Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, who called Jacob’s Pillow their home.

The group, which consisted of multiple Springfield athletes, performed for millions of people around the world during their seven-year tenure (1933-1940). After the group disbanded, Shawn set his focus on Jacob’s Pillow, which is now a world-renowned center of dance where thousands come to learn, present and educate each year.

Throughout his life, Shawn was honored with the Capezio Award (1957), the Dance Magazine Award (1970) and he was knighted by the King of Denmark for his efforts on behalf of the Royal Danish Ballet.

After his passing in 1972, Shawn was also named as one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000. His impact on the dancing community and culture were endless and continue to be felt to this day.

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