Skip to main content

Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XI — Denishawn

It was a happy summer for me at Denishawn in Los Angeles. I was esconced on the second floor of the big three-story dwelling which was the leased abode of Denishawn. There was a large ballroom on the main floor, where barre exercises and floor work were practiced. One day at lunch Ted said, “Ernest, you’re underweight. Why don’t you take the floor and barre work with the students? You’ll get to know more of what dance is all about, and it will build you up physically.” The first it did, surely; the second was a failure. Both Ted and Ruth had to watch their weight. Meals were planned to that end. (I often supplemented mine by a visit to the corner drug store for a malted milk.)

On rare occasions Miss Ruth would appear in a Nile green floor-length gown and ask, “Ernest, would you like to hear some of my poems?” and we would repair to the famous black drawingroom, and sit, cross-legged on the black carpet, propped up by pillows, facing each other, while she read aloud to me some of the verse she had written. Once, late at night, I heard her clear voice call to me down the open stairwell from her quarters on the third floor, “Ernest, are you sleepy?”

“No,” I answered.

“Let’s take a walk down to Broadway and take in a late movie.”

Soon she appeared in a long pink linen shapeless gown, her feet clad in sandals, her white hair mostly hidden under a wide-brimmed straw hat, and we sought out a Charlie Ray movie.

Sometimes, too, of a late evening, Ted would come and sit on the edge of my narrow bed, and ask, “Feel like talking?” and I, knowing thereby that he did, I’d answer, “Sure.” We’d talk about Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, or Carpenter’s Toward Democracy, or he’d want to discuss ideas of a church service in dance form. What Scripture, what sermon text, what hymns, what costuming? It was he that introduced me to Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum, as translated by Claude Bragdon, and I came to know Bragdon’s masterly books on the fourth dimension and related spatial concepts.

He stirred many questions in my mind. When he had suggested that I take part in the instruction the school offered, I felt very self-conscious about appearing in the one-piece black bathing suit which was mandatory, along with all the students, mostly attractive young women, and just at first I was. But the rigor of the physical demands was such that I came to think only of trying to get my body to do what the teachers demanded, as it was obvious everyone else was trying to do. It was only when some of the girls, preparing for a production in which they were to appear in costumes that included high-heeled shoes, and they practiced wearing the shoes with their bathing suits that I became self-consciously aware of them as scantily clad young women.

To most of the students, dance was virtually a religion. They were dedicated, jealous of the high standard of the school, and whatever amatory urges they surely had, appeared to be subordinated to the common purpose that dominated them—with one exception that I was, because of my ministerial dedication, made aware of.

One youth, age nineteen, attending on a scholarship, confided a special problem to me. His temperament was deviant and undisciplined. He had a handsome body slightly under average height, a pixyish face, olive complexion, eyes that turned up at the corners, and a remarkable aptitude at learning dance routines. But he had come from a poor family, worked as a bell boy in a middle-west third-class hotel, and responded to the aberrant wishes of some of the guests. He was doomed to such a life, he believed. Could I help him?

I wasn’t sure that I could. As so often in the years to come, I would be called on to help solve problems strange to me, I prayed, “Oh, God, tell me what to say.”

This is what I heard myself saying: “Kenneth, I guess God did make us all the same. You may or may not be responsible for your temperament that varies from that of the majority, but you are surely responsible for what you do about it. For instance, we cannot always seem to control falling in love, but we are responsible for what we do about it. You do not have to be promiscuous. Have pride in yourself, the body God has given you, the goals you seek. As one sage has said, “There is nothing whatsoever evil if a man have mastery over it, nothing whatsoever good if it have mastery over a man.”

Did it help? I didn’t think so, for some years later I had dinner with Ted in New York, and we talked of the attainments of Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey, all of whom had been at Denishawn during my summer’s visit. “Tell me, Ted, whatever became of Kenneth?”

“I’m sorry to tell you, but he couldn’t accept the discipline that his nature required. He left the School shortly after you returned to San Diego. We haven’t heard of him since then.” But there was a sequel. That was not the last I was to hear of him. In the late forties I was appearing daily on television. Returning from one such appearance I found the telephone ringing as I entered the patio of my home in Hollywood Hills. Hastening to answer it I was surprised to hear a remembered voice from the past. “Kenneth! Where are you? What are you doing?” I exclaimed.

“I heard and saw you on TV a few minutes ago. Do you remember the talk we had so long ago, and how you tried to help me? I went through some messy experiences after I left the School. Finally I came to my senses and followed your advice. By a miracle I found someone whom I could love and who loved me. We bought a farm out in the country some twenty miles from Los Angeles and we’ve lived together all these years. I’m happy for the first time in my life. I thought you’d like to know!”

Indeed I did like to know. For Kenneth, I believe it was the right answer. Helping him find it may have been one reason why I spent that summer at Denishawn.

During the three months at Denishawn I found empathy with a world that was new and strange and rewarding. I met and became acquainted with many of the greats in the dance world. I found an outlet for a different kind of writing, and discovered the fascination of working with art forms; batik, tie-dye, and stage design. I had a part in composing a religious service in dance form.

Recurrently through my stay at Denishawn there was talk of a possible tour of the Orient, inspired largely by Miss Ruth’s preoccupation with the art forms of Egypt, India, and Japan, and the many invitations to perform in those countries. Plans crystallized in a schedule to comprise a three-months tour. Ted and Miss Ruth invited me to make the tour with them. “We’ll figure out things for you to do—a walk-on part in productions, work behind the scenes, whatever you can do that will pay your expenses. It is sure to be a memorable experience, and a wonderful chance to visit those countries, even to meet world leaders in those areas. I know you want to get back to your work, but it’s a rare opportunity; we love you and want you to be with us.”

Cherished Associations

Their affection, and their willingness to go to such lengths in order to have me continue with them was very moving to me. They knew that I had no desire to be a dancer—nor for that matter the innate ability to become one. They were opening the way for me to explore faraway places with strange sounding names, in the company of the most prestigious figures in the world of the creative arts. The prospect was alluring, but it also brought clearly into focus my own sense of purpose and direction. My summer with them had widened my horizon and established friendships that were to last throughout their lifetimes—-both Ted and Miss Ruth have entered another dimension—and served to deepen rather than divert my devotion to the ministry.

When the time came for me to return to San Diego and I got into the driver’s seat of my little car, it felt good to be returning home.

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.