Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

Find by Date

March 2021

Rachel’s blog @

View Rachel @

Juilliard Dance

Published: August 23, 2012
Category: history

Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival: A Dance Heritage Coalition Essay

by Rachel Straus

The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Photo by Nancy Tutko from the archives of Jacob’s Pillow

The dance of America will be as seemingly formless as the poetry of Walt Whitman, and yet like Leaves of Grass it will be so big that it will encompass all forms. Its organization will be democratic, its fundamental principles, freedom and progress; its manifestation an institution of art expression through rhythmic, beautiful bodily movement, broader and more elastic than has ever yet been known. —Ted Shawn

With the creation of Jacob’s Pillow, Ted Shawn (1891-1972) developed a school and festival founded on the principles of artistic diversity and freedom of expression. Shawn’s mission—to present and teach myriad dance forms without hierarchical valuation—continues to this day. From its humble beginnings in 1933 with a lecture- demonstration, attended by fifty people, to its development as an international summer dance festival and school, the story of Jacob’s Pillow is permeated with a pioneering spirit. Like Whitman’s epic poetry, Shawn’s vision for dance was expansive. Nonetheless Jacob’s Pillow began small and in the most unlikely of places, the woods of Becket, Massachusetts, where Shawn purchased a decrepit 1790s farm, transforming it into a studio-theater and living quarters with the help of his male dancers.

The survival and growth of Jacob’s Pillow is something of a miracle. Most long-standing performing arts institutions are born under the auspices of monarchies, nation-states, city governments, or philanthropists, who support its operations. Jacob’s Pillow began at the height of the Great Depression without a patron in sight. It survived on a shoestring by dint of the sweat, craft and passion of its participants, who performed for free during World War II. Today it is the longest continuously operating dance festival in the United States, recognized as a National Historic Landmark and, most recently, given a National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama. On its grounds renowned ballet, Bharata Natyam, ballroom, tap, jazz, hip hop, flamenco,Butoh, and modern dance artists have shared the stage, meals, and ideas with each other. They’ve inspired the next generation of dancers, a number of whom have been students of the school.

The story of the Pillow as a freedom-forging community dates from the mid-1800s, when the farm, under the ownership of abolitionist Stephen Carter, became a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada. When Shawn bought the Pillow property, he sought freedom for male dancers. With works that celebrated the masculine form, Shawn combated the engrained notion in the U.S. that male dancing was grotesque. Battling the stereotype that male dancing was effeminate, Shawn connected dance to physical labor. At the first performances in the converted barn’s performing space, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers danced works that evoked constructing and tilling, hammering, and hauling. Transcending difficulty became a constant refrain in Shawn’s work. Whether it was digging a trench or performing a dance, labor was presented as honorable and virile. It was also how Jacob’s Pillow got built: one log, panel, and studio mirror at a time.

The name Jacob’s Pillow comes from the Old Testament. In Genesis 28, Jacob is described as laying his head on a stone pillow and dreaming of a ladder by which angels descend from and ascend to the heavens. The festival’s property received its biblical denomination from the region’s early settlers. A switchback road through the Berkshires’ steep hills came to became known as Jacob’s Ladder. A nearby gas station called itself Jacob’s Dream. In 1930, Shawn discovered old letterhead in the main house, identifying the parcel of land as “Jacob’s Pillow—A Mountain Farm.” Behind the house lies a sloped rock resembling a massive pillow. This is Jacob’s Pillow. Because Jacob dreamt of angels, the Pillow’s destiny as a place dedicated to transcending gravity feels like fate. Like angels, dancers fly. Shawn’s first angels were his male dancers, who switch-backed across the United States, performing from 1933 to 1940. They were trailblazers, performing to audiences unused to modern dance, let alone choreography performed solely by men. Each summer they returned to the Pillow. But they did not rest. They made Shawn’s dream of a rural place for dance a reality.

A year after the Pillow’s first public performance, Shawn offered dance instruction to 40 male students. Five years later, in 1938, the summer school officially opened its doors to females. The enterprise was a success. But by 1940 Shawn was exhausted and in debt. He put his property up for sale and disbanded his company, with the satisfaction that he had irrevocably shifted audiences’ perceptions about male dancing. It was providential that no one came forward to buy Jacob’s Pillow. Instead, dance teacher Mary Washington Ball leased Shawn’s property for her Berkshire Hills Dance Festival. Ball spearheaded a template of diverse programming, which showcased performances of ballet, modern, “Oriental,” and Spanish dance. The following year, Shawn leased the property to English ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Their International Festival of Dance helped build ballet in America. Markova and Dolin offered the year-old Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) a summer-long residency. With that time and space,choreographer Antony Tudor began his masterwork Pillar of Fire.

In 1942, the Pillow was reshaped. Though a strong foundation for dance education and performance had been laid, Shawn no longer could shoulder the burden of running the organization independently. From the Berkshire and Boston communities, a board of directors formed. They made the Pillow a non-profit institution. Designating Shawn its founder and director, the board raised $50,000 to buy the property and build The Ted Shawn Theatre, the first stage in America solely dedicated to dance. Inside the lobby of the theater (since renovated), a scrap of paper with words from poet Edwin Markham greeted ticket holders: “If someone draws a circle and excludes you, then draw a larger circle and include him.” (Fay, 62) Shawn’s placement of the quote at the door of his theater was a message to the dance community, increasingly polarized into fiefdoms, particularly between ballet and modern dance practitioners.

Against this divisive trend, the Pillow’s 1942 ten-week festival championed comprehensiveness. Its veteran and emerging performers represented the world of dance. They included Asadata Dafora of Sierre Leone, flamenco dancer La Argentinita, ballerina Marina Svetlova, and modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, among others. The 1942 festival season structured its dance offerings around themes, such as “American Folk Dance,” “Dances of the Orient and their adaptations,” “Contemporary European Ballet,” and “Primitive Dance and its adaptations.” This programming was the first of its kind. It revealed to audiences how dance reflects cultures and societies. It demonstrated that the art form wasn’t just about kicking one’s heels.

As the festival developed, the school did not diminish in importance. Offering eight weeks of instruction in 1942, the University of Dance, as it was then called, modeled itself after Columbia University’s liberal arts curriculum, which sought to make its students citizens of the world through a diversified education. Reflecting this philosophy, the Pillow students studied numerous dance forms. Before they saw the festival’s shows, Shawn lectured to them about the artists being presented. Eminent ones, like Bronislava Nijinska, choreographed on them. As detailed in an early school catalog, the students’ responsibilities extended well beyond the dance studio: “A period is set aside each day for work such as building, chopping wood and gardening” (Owen, 65). Dance wasn’t just a vocation at the Pillow. It was a community-based lifestyle.

Also groundbreaking was the Pillow’s approach to its audiences. Decades before the word “educational outreach” came into parlance, the festival cultivated dance appreciation through a lecture series. In the 1957 series, Walter Terry interviewed Danish ballet trailblazers Inge Sand and Erik Bruhn, Ann Hutchinson lectured on dance notation, and Alicia Markova, Ruth St. Denis and Matteo talked about their extensive careers. Admission was $1.50.

In the 1950s the festival became a leading importer of international dance companies and artists. The National Ballet of Canada, The Royal Danish Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Ballet Rambert, The Netherlands Dance Theater, and Indian dance soloists Balasaraswati, Indrani, and Ritha Devi made their U.S. debuts at the Pillow. Shawn also promoted regional ballet companies from the cities of Miami, Atlanta, and Boston, and from the states of Washington, Ohio, and Texas. Presenting artists on three-part mixed bills, Shawn’s format reflected vaudeville with its multiple acts.

But unlike vaudeville, which predominantly presented dance as a sexual or comedic vehicle, the festival promoted dance as a major art form. Sponsoring the avant-garde and the unknown, Shawn’s mixed bills supported the Merce Cunningham Company, two years after the company’s founding in 1953, and introduced Robert Joffrey, who presented his first work at the Pillow, four years before founding his ballet company in 1956. During Shawn’s tenure (1933-1971) 300 world premieres took place.

With the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts (1965), dance in America boomed. The number of modern and ballet companies founded in the United States exponentially increased. The Pillow’s seasons reflected this bounty. Dance Theatre of Harlem, Twyla Tharp, José Limón Dance Company, Nikolais Dance Theatre, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Dan Wagoner & Dancers, American Mime Theatre, Pearl Lang & Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch & Company, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Harkness Ballet, and Paul Taylor Dance Company, among many others, performed at the Ted Shawn Theatre. United States-based ballet stars Kevin McKenzie, Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins, and Edward Villella all came to the Pillow. They went on to run major U.S. ballet companies. Also of importance in the 1970s was the presentation of rhythm tap performers, like Jane Goldberg, Charles “Cookie” Cook, and Leslie “Bubba” Gaines. The important dance artists and companies that have appeared, and continue to appear, at the Pillow are legion.

Following Shawn’s death in 1972, the Pillow’s pioneering approach did not diminish, nor did its challenges. Equal parts growth and instability characterized the next two decades. In the first decade, five different directors ran the Pillow. They were longtime Shawn associate John Christian, dance critic Walter Terry, former dance manager Charles Reinhart (who simultaneously directed the American Dance Festival), dancer-teacher Norman Walker, and choreographer Liz Thompson. Despite the changes of leadership, the festival grew. Thompson, for example, helped create two more stages, the Inside/Out (1983) and The Doris Duke (1990). Since 1998, Ella Baff has held the executive-artistic director’s position. Her tenure, marked by stability and innovation, remains the longest after Shawn’s.

The Pillow of the 21st century still feels and looks a world apart, despite massive changes in American life since the Great Depression. America’s suburbanization and corporatization, which characterize much of the nation’s landscape, have not reached this rural-based dance mecca, approximately 145 miles from Boston and New York. The festival continues to runs on the labor and love of people who identify dance as their calling. That applies to the artists, students and staff, but also to the interns who are crucial to the festival’s smooth operation. As modern-day arts pioneers, the Pillow community ushers in approximately 60 performances, 20 talks, 100 students, and more than 80,000 audience members, during a marathon season that lasts a mere 70 days. Those involved with the kaleidoscopic adventure become part of dance history. They experience what Ted Shawn lived and described so poetically: “I feel that I, too, am merely a wave carried in on this tide— my function to focus and enunciate the crystallizing form of the Dance Life in America.”

Books and Articles

Burt, Ramsay. “The Trouble with the Male Dancer…” In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright.
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Cunningham, Kitty. “Jacob’s Pillow.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. 1998. Fay, Anthony. “The Festival of ’42: A History-Making Summer at Jacob’s Pillow,”

Dance Magazine, July 1976. Mumaw, Barton. Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow and Beyond.

Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

Owen, Norton. A Certain Place, The Jacob’s Pillow Story. Becket, MA: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 2002.

Owen, Norton. “Crossroads of the Dance World: America’s Oldest Summer Festival.” Dance Magazine. July 1997: 62-69.

Poindexter, Betty. “Ted Shawn: His Personal Life, His Professional Career, And His Contributions to the Development of Dance in the United States of America from 1891 to 1963.” Ph.D diss., Texas Women’s University, 1963.

Shawn, Ted. Thirty-Three Years of American Dance (1927-1959) and The American Ballet. Pittsfield: The Eagle Printing and Binding Company, 1959.

Shawn, Ted. Dance We Must. Pittsfield: The Eagle Printing and Binding Co., 1940.

Moving Image

Never Stand Still. Dir. Ron Honsa. Narr. Bill T. Jones, 2011.

The Men Who Danced, The Story of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers and the Birth of Jacob’s Pillow, 1933-1940. Dir. Ron Honsa, 1985.


Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives, Becket, MA The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library, New York, NY

Online Resources

Virtual Pillow. Ed. Norton Owen. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. 2011 http://www.jacobspillow.org/Virtual-Pillow/

Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition


Comments are closed.