Ruth St. Denis Would Have Loved Zumba

In my American Concert Dance of the 20th and 21st Centuries graduate class, we read and posted discussion about the 3 forerunners of what would become Modern Dance: Louis Fuller, Ruth St. Dennis, and Isadora Duncan.  Our reading, by Sally Banes, was incredibly insightful and sparked some great conversation among our class.

Especially in reference to Ruth St. Dennis, or Miss Ruthie as she was affectionately called, among many ideas, the concept of finding the sacred in dance was prominent in her work.  She did this by exploring sacred dances from other, non-christian cultures.  In our reading, Banes discussed her dance Radha, which is based on a Hindu Goddess.  In this dance, Radha does explore her sensuality and experiences sexual pleasure, but it is not enduced by a man, but by self-touch.  And it is not to entice or tease, but to explore the body within the sacred to teach a lesson.

So, how does this relate to Zumba?  Well, one thing that was prominent for all three of these female pioneers, especially Ruth, was that they had a dominantly female audience.  They were strong women, performing solos on stage, for a female audience. While Zumba was started by a man and I’m sure there are men that enjoy the classes, from the classes I’ve taken, I’ve noticed women have very much taken over.  Like what was going on in the birth of modern dance, the Zumba classes I take are taught by a woman and the classes are for women.  It is a chance for women to explore their sensuality through movement, but without the male gaze.  I can’t speak for every woman that takes Zumba, but it seems most take it for their own pleasure, not for anyone else’s.

It is also an exploration of otherness, which Miss Ruthie did dominantly through Orientalism.  While Zumba was originally just Latin Dance based, they branched out to Middle Eastern Belly Dance and Bollywood from India.  Like Ruth’s work, it is not an accurate representation of these dances, but it’s the essence of them.

Sparked by Banes’s writing and the insights of my classmates, it just occured to me tonight.  As I was sweating like a mad woman in my Zumba class tonight, “shakin it” without any shame, I realized how Ruth Dennis would have loved Zumba.  It is wonderful to dance like that just for yourself, and I’m sure Ruth would have been a Zumba regular 🙂