I wrote the following short story for a "historical fiction" assignment in Satu Hummasti's Graduate Dance History course at the University of Utah. You will be surprised at how much of this is factually correct.
I’ve only told this story, in its entirety, twice: the first time, during a debriefing to my superiors at the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services) after the war, and the second, after a night of heavy drinking with my old Princeton roommate Cross at a local tavern in Boston. It was a moment of weakness, but hey, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for a young lady with Bette Davis eyes - and after a few too many that night, they had all started looking like movie stars. My mother calls me Morris (you can call me Moe) and my bosses called me Remus. Wild Bill Donovan gave me that code name – and I always hated him for it - but that’s not what I came here to tell you. I came here to tell you about my first assignment, the one that eventually earned my job at the OSS – transforming Ted Shawn’s Male Dancers into a highly trained outfit of assassins capable of carrying out one of the most important missions of the entire Second World War (which is still classified.) But enough about me - I have Red Sox / Yankees tickets tonight, so let’s begin.
I had first witnessed the technical prowess of Shawn’s company on May 16, 1936, at the Stevens Hotel Grand Ballroom in Chicago, Il. The rest of the team was in Cleveland that night (getting shellacked, if I remember correctly), and as I had been having some trouble with my knee (I’d torn a ligament way back in 1930) the manager gave me the day off. In a moment of decided improvisational whimsy, I decided to catch the early train to Chicago to catch the show. I’d heard that this group of male dancers had struck upon something interesting – the use of dance training as a method for men to achieve a healthy, active physique. I didn’t know much about this new “modern dance” at the time, but if I could find something to extend my career, I was prepared to explore it. In any case, it had been getting some favorable reviews in the newspapers – like the first one I’d read from the St. Louis Star Times all the way back in 1933, when I played for the Senators:
Ted Shawn and his all-male group of dancers have gone a long way since they first appeared here…At that time, they were just starting out with the rather revolutionary notion that dancing could be a very masculine preoccupation and that they could attract audiences to enable them to continue without the aid of fair ladies.
They were a little self-conscious about it at first, and so intent upon proving their athleticism with resounding whacks at the floor that oftener than not grace got lost in the process…The program had more in common with a gymnasium workout than with art.
Last season…the group apparently had proved their basic tenet and showed considerable progress, but there was still a notable clumsiness and lack of freedom in their dancing. Saturday night…the men revealed an enormous improvement, both in dancing technique and choreography employed.
Besides growth in smoothness of motion both individually and as a unit, the dancers displayed a new understanding of what they were doing. Rather than the feeling of a gymnastic drill, the dances imparted a genuine sense of the values of rhythm, line, and color. They were artistic rather than merely athletic. (Schlundt, 34-35)
For some reason that article had lodged itself in the back of my brain – to me, dance had always been for women to dance around like fairies and nymphs, with the occasional man to hoist them around the stage for a moment or two. It wasn’t about a group of men moving in a masculine way. This idea of teamwork, the interconnectedness of the unit, also intrigued me. As an older player, and especially a catcher, it was partially my responsibility to keep the guys focused and working together. Perhaps there was something I could learn from this show?
The show was simply spectacular. Never before had I seen such athleticism and, well, grace displayed by a group of American men – and this after over a decade in the majors! I’d seen Ruth and Gehrig, some of the most athletic men around, in game action – and that paled in comparison to the men who danced for Ted Shawn. I was impressed. I decided to try to catch one of the dancers after the show. Luckily, the guard was a transplanted Bostonian who recognized me – so I got the personal tour as well as an introduction to Mr. Shawn himself. As it was the last show of the season, he was exhausted but generally in a good spirit. I explained my knee situation to him, and he listened carefully. He invited me to train personally with him and his dancers at his summer school in Berkshire (not too far from my house!) He had been thinking about starting a specific program to train men in his art, and he seemed convinced that the training would keep me playing for another ten years. I instantly thought him quite generous; I later learned that he had taken me on as a pupil mostly out of ego and partially to lend credibility to his company. If a professional baseball player wasn’t afraid to take dance classes, why should any other red-blooded American man be? Unfortunately, our season didn’t end until late September that year, so I only made occasional trips to his farm when we were in Boston for a homestand.
Over the course of the next few years, I maintained my training with Mr. Shawn whenever I could; as I averaged about 30 games a year (out of 150) this was not inherently difficult. The work with his company helped my body recover from my knee injury, and I thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor exercises and camaraderie that was built between the men (although I never really cared for the tea he served at his seminars, I’d always been more of a coffee man.) However, in 1939 three events coincided to bring about the next stage in his goal of rebuilding the definition of masculinity in America. The first, most importantly, was the eventual deterioration of the European continent into war. Those damned Nazis in Germany had been rattling their sabers for quite some time, and even though significant concessions were made to appease them, they finally decided to take more than what was given to them when they invaded Poland on September 1. Most American men at the time were transfixed on the daily papers – it seemed that at any time our country could be drawn into what they were calling World War Two. With the passing of the Selective Service Act of 1917 (which re-instituted the draft,) we all knew it was only a matter of time before Uncle Sam came knocking on our doors. I think Ted knew this, too; I could see it in his eyes as he announced that the 1939-1940 tour would be the last for his Male Dancers.
The third and final event that brought my story together, and I say that with the greatest amount of humility for myself as a “broker of history,” was in a letter I received from Nelson Rockefeller. It seems he had been following my career with some interest since my days at Princeton and through an appearance I made on a radio quiz show called Information, Please! (Although I missed an easy first question due to nerves, I quickly recovered to dominate the rest of that game, and the next.) Mr. Rockefeller was beginning to put together a secretive outfit for the SIS (Signal Intelligence Service) that would later be transferred to the OIAA (Office of Inter-American Affairs, which was responsible for eliminating German and Italian fascist influences in Latin and South America.) In any case, Mr. Rockefeller decided that it was of utmost importance to American interests that a group of men be trained for a highly secretive mission. While certain military elite forces existed at the time, Mr. Rockefeller insisted that this group come from outside the military hierarchy (as it was imperative that their cover remain shrouded in complete secrecy.) As most of Shawn’s Male Dancers were eligible for the draft, and had been discussing their voluntary options should America become entangled in the war, I suggested that these men be trained as that group. Mr. Rockefeller, at first, was dubious at best. When I explained to him the rigorous training these men had undergone, not only physically, but also creatively, and the camaraderie that already existed within the group, his mood brightened. It was decided that I would remain in a lesser position with the Boston Red Sox (as an assistant coach) for the duration of the training period, although the bulk of my time would be spent preparing these men for strategically important missions behind enemy lines.
When I posed the invitation to Mr. Shawn and his Dancers, the debate was spirited. While none of the group was particularly keen to become active participants in an increasingly aggressive war, many saw the benefit of membership in an elite group. Many had heard stories of the atrocities of World War 1, and were eager to avoid becoming machine gun fodder. Likewise, Ted saw this as an opportunity for his Dancers to achieve the ultimate answer to his goals for the group – that a group of male dancers could redefine the American idea of masculinity. By taking on the difficult training and subsequent assignments given to them, and succeeding, he could, once and for all, end the debate of the manliness of the male dancer, and cement his legacy for generations to come. It was agreed that his Men Dancers would complete their final season on May 7, 1940, and begin training at once.
I will always remember this final program and the reviews it garnered. As Walter Terry, New York dance critic and author, stated in his biography of Ted Shawn titled Ted Shawn: Father of American Dance:
The last tour, 1939 to 1940, was a memorable one. There was an unprecedented (for dance) one-week stand in Philadelphia with rave reviews capped by “magnificent achievement technically and choreographically – faultless dancing. The New York farewell at Carnegie Hall was impressive. Louis Biancolli in the World-Telegram went into ecstasies over Shawn’s choreographic treatment of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and in the Herald Tribune he wrote that “one could wish it had been a debut instead of a goodbye.” The very last performances in Boston had the traditionally reserved Bostonians standing, stomping, clapping, and cheering. (Terry, 156-157)
Once undertaken, it became immediately apparent to everyone involved that this had been a wise decision. Mr. Shawn’s Dancers, no strangers to extreme physical training, took to the regimen with grace and ease – a welcome discovery given the accelerating deterioration of the situation in Europe. In a matter of months they were all highly skilled at hand-to-hand combat and were expert riflemen. I will always remember a moment on an early Saturday morning – the morning dew had just evaporated from the fields of grass, the birds were chirping happily, and Ted had quickly left the group’s jujitsu training unannounced. He began furiously writing something in a notebook. When I questioned what he was writing, he showed me pages and pages of what he called Movement Scores, or highly detailed series of symbols he described as “Laban Notation.” As I pored over the lines of shapes, lines, and notes, I realized that, within this language of movement, we had the perfect medium with which to convey orders to the group. By using their language of movement, we could communicate in a way that the uninitiated masses would not be able to understand.
My past training in languages was put to good use as I instructed them in basic and conversational German, Italian, and Japanese. Shawn, whose military experience during the First World War proved useful (he had volunteered as a private, but was sent to the Officer’s Training Camp, where he became Lieutenant of the 32nd Infantry of the United States Army (Drier, 78)), quickly became a natural leader the unit needed. Training continued until that fateful day on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. With the United States’ entry into the Second World War, our training was now going to be put to use. It was at that point that we received our first assignment.
I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading; the cable had arrived from Rockefeller’s office late that evening. Rumor had it that the Germans had devised a method, based on archaic rituals, to turn prisoners of war into zombies. Our mission was to infiltrate their secret research facility, determine the breadth of their knowledge, and, if possible, put a stop to this program. Plans for the facility were included in the briefing, and Shawn (with his musician/second lieutenant Jess Meeker) devised a scheme for the infiltration: re-enacting their roles in Death of Adonis: Plastique (1923), the Men Dancers would pose as marble Greek sculptures. The SS superintendent responsible for the building, according to our intelligence sources, had commissioned several marble works to celebrate his promotion to the post. In the original dance, Shawn had intended to prove that “one could present the body so impersonally that no one’s taste would be offended.” (Dreier, 52) Now, he intended to prove that his dancers could portray the lifeless so perfectly they would escape detection long enough to complete the mission. The dance, originally performed as a solo, was now disseminated throughout the group.
The group was prepared and airlifted to Gibraltar, at which point they were secretly placed on a captured Croatian cruise liner bound for Varna, Bulgaria. From that point, the “sculptures” made their way to the secret Nazi zombie research facility outside of Dresden. This three-week journey was not without its perils – at one point, as the ship was passing through the Bosporus Straits near Istanbul, Turkey, the entire company was almost bartered for an entire cargo ship of fez hats! Luckily, though, they arrived safely at their destination.
Upon arrival, the group quickly swung into action. The news of zombie research, unfortunately, had been true – zombie production at the facility had yielded an army of almost 400 staggering, decaying soldiers. Barton Mumaw, long the primary soloist outside of Ted Shawn himself, quickly donned the headdress used in the dance The Bullgod (1930) and personally gored 85 zombies. The rest of the company (Frank Overlees, Wilbur McCormack, Fred Hearn, Frank Delmar, John Delmar, John Schubert and Harry Coble), using the powerful, masculine movements trained into them for the past 8 years, as well as the spears originally used in 1919’s Japanese Spear Dance, quickly tore through the remaining masses of Nazi zombie warriors. It seemed, at the time, that infectious biting was no match for the Men Dancers’ “perfection of synchronization in rhythm that was at times little short of amazing.” (Schlundt, 41) While his Men Dancers rid the Earth of the zombie scourge, Ted Shawn himself fought off the entire fascist army while performing the Mevlevi Dervish (1924), a piece in which he performed 270 revolutions in four and one half minutes (within a space of only 12 inches!) Subsequent reports describing the event are, to say the least, breathtaking.
At long last, with the mission successfully in hand, the only task remaining was that of extraction. With the precision of a finely tuned machine, the Men Dancers quickly formed the circular shape from Kinetic Molpai (1935), in which the Men Dancers lie on their backs in an overlapping circle that leads to Mr. Shawn himself, supported by a prone dancer and reaching upward to the sky. However, this time they had high-intensity flashlights. The formation was immediately noticed by the pilot of the experimental Northrop P-61 Black Widow reconnaissance aircraft (which would not be officially acknowledged for another year.) Within minutes, the long-range aircraft landed at the base’s airstrip and whisked the Men Dancers off to safety.
Based on the success of the mission, I was quickly promoted to a permanent espionage position within Rockefeller’s OIAA. Ted Shawn continued to keep up appearances back home, working tirelessly both to continue the summer workshops of Jacob’s Pillow and to train his Men Dancers for each successive mission. While none of the men in our elite dancer squadron was ever officially recognized for that initial mission, the United States Government attempted to award me the Medal of Freedom on October 10, 1945. I officially refused to accept the award on December 10, 1945, because I knew, deep in my heart, that those male dancers had won the war and deserved the recognition.
They will always be, in my mind, the Inglorious Danseurs.
Allbright, Ann Cooper and Dils, Ann (2001). Moving History / Dancing Cultures: A dance history reader. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Au, Susan (1988). Ballet and Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Bamford, James (1982). The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s most secret intelligence organization. New York: Penguin.
Dreier, Katherine (1933). Shawn the Dancer. New York: A.S. Barnes And Company.
Gard, Michael (2006). Men Who Dance: Aesthetics, athletics & the art of masculinity. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Guest, Ann Hutchinson, ed. (1988). Shawn’s Fundamentals of Dance. New York: Routledge.
Schlundt, Christena (1967). The Professional Appearances of Ted Shawn & his Men Dancers: A chronology and an index of dances 1933-1940. New York: New York Public Library
Terry, Walter (1976). Ted Shawn: Father of American dance. New York: Dial Press.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “World War II Timeline.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/?ModuleId=10005143. Accessed on March 3, 2013.