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How Isadora Duncan's Heart Gave Dance a New Pulse

“Oh Woman, come before us, before our eyes longing for beauty, and tired of the ugliness of civilization, come in simple tunics, letting us see the line and harmony of the body beneath, and dance for us. Dance us the sweetness of life. Give us again the sweetness and the beauty of the true dance, give us again the joy of seeing the simple unconscious pure body of a woman. Like a great call it has come, and women must hear it and answer it.” ― Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance (1970)

Isadora Duncan  (1877 — 1927) | Dover Street Studios, 38 Dover Street, Mayfair, London, UK. Active 1906–c.1912. | Distributed in the U.S. by Charles L. Ritzmann, photographer
Isadora Duncan (1877 — 1927)

Isadora Duncan (1877 — 1927), affectionately known as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” was arguably one of the most influential self-made dance pioneers of all time. Fiercely independent, free-spirited, and unwilling to abide by the norms of her day, Duncan unapologetically committed herself to exploring the human condition on her own terms, both personally and professionally. In the end, the revolutionary dancer became a world-famous star and the epitome of the tragic romantic artist.

Born in San Francisco, Duncan was the youngest of four children raised in genteel destitute by their bohemian mother, a music teacher, who consistently fostered and encouraged her children’s appreciation of the arts. Although Duncan enjoyed learning and absorbing new information, she found formal education to be tedious and stifling. So, by the age of ten, she dropped out of school and became a fixture at the Oakland public library, where she engaged in self-education under the guidance of poet and librarian Ina Donna Coolbrith (1841 — 1928).

When Duncan was six years old, she started teaching social dance to the children in her Oakland neighborhood, along with her older sister Elizabeth (1871 — 1948), who also grew up to be a dancer. Not only were they able to earn a little extra money for the family, Duncan used the opportunity to develop her unique style. Having taken a number of ballet classes at the age of nine, she thought the art form was too structured, and produced “artificial mechanical movement not worthy of the soul.” Instead, she preferred to allow instinct and emotion to guide her steps.

By 1896, despite having no formal training, then nineteen-year-old Duncan secured her first legitimate job with a New York dance company run by Augustin Daly (1838 — 1899), an American dramatist and theatrical manager. The position was short-lived. A career in theatre using the “mechanical’ imposition of ballet steps” stood in stark contrast to her own ideas about movement; to Duncan, “dancing communicated not a story but her own expressionist and highly individual response to the music.”

Duncan drew inspiration from nature, literature, art, and the classics; “she championed the notion of free-spiritedness coupled with the high ideals of ancient Greece: beauty, philosophy, and humanity.” She wanted “to elevate dance into a language of liberation and transformation, to make it a vehicle for big emotions, big ideas and great art.” Realizing that she would be hard pressed to find the kind of recognition she was aiming for in the states, the fledging dancer decided to move to Europe with her family at the age of twenty-one.

Isadora Duncan #28 by Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965) at the Brooklyn Musuem
Isadora Duncan #28 by Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965) at the Brooklyn Musuem

There, Isadora Duncan came into her own. Studying Greek mythology, visual iconography, and sculpture, she “confirmed the classical use of those dance movements and gestures that hitherto instinct alone had caused her to practice and upon a revival of which her method was largely founded.” She embraced the classic aesthetic in her dress as well. “She danced without shoes or corsets. The fluid lines of her costumes not only liberated Duncan's body but also had the great advantage of showing her naked legs and the occasional glimpse of a breast.”

It didn’t take long for Duncan to get the attention of established arts patrons. She befriended a wealthy actress who introduced the dancer to her privileged friends, which led to Duncan being invited to perform at their private receptions. Her unusual style of dance and dress, coupled with her preference for music by great romantic composers — such as Wagner (1813 —1883), Beethoven (1770 — 1827), and Chopin (1810 —1849) — who had never been used for the dance stage before then, attracted a growing number of fans across the continent.

“In 1902 her debut performances in Budapest with a full orchestra were a critical success and ran sold-out for 30 days.” As a result, Duncan’s popularity skyrocketed. Not only was she a sensation in Europe, she also captured the attention of Russia’s top choreographers and art critics when she toured the country just three years later. Sergey Diaghilev (1872 — 1929), a famous arts promoter later stated: “We do not deny that Duncan is a kindred spirit. Indeed, we carry the torch that she lit.” Her impact on Russian ballet is still felt today.

Isadora Duncan in New York during her visits to America in 1915-18. Duncan in a Greek-inspired pose and wearing her signature Greek tunic.
Isadora Duncan in New York during her visits to America in 1915-18.

Financial stability along with a busy touring schedule and packed venues made the rising star that much more eager to share her love of dance with others. So, Duncan opened her first dance school just outside of Berlin in 1905. “Along with her sister Elizabeth, she started training the young dancers who would become her performing company, ‘The Isadorables, as dubbed by the press.’” Eventually, other dance schools were founded in France, Russia, and the United States, though none of them survived.

It’s impossible to talk about Isadora Duncan’s art without mentioning her personal life, as both were defined by her rejection of conformity. “She flouted social conventions too flamboyantly to be regarded by the wider public as anything but an advocate of ‘free love.’” She had many lovers and considered matrimony to be a “a highly overrated performance.” She even publicly proclaimed that “any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract, and then goes into it, deserves all of the consequences.”

On top of that, Duncan had two children out of wedlock, a daughter born in 1906 and a son born four years later. Tragically, she lost them both in 1913, when the car carrying her kids and their nurse rolled into the Seine River in Paris. The heartbreaking event left a wound that would never fully heal and Duncan turned to alcohol for comfort and escape. “Duncan's style subsequently transformed; some saw grief for her lost children, others the influence of her growing weight and alcohol dependence.”

In an attempt to heal her broken heart, Duncan retreated to Italy, where spent time with a friend and worked on choreography; Marche Funebre (1913) and Mother (1921) — which feature music by Chopin and Scriabin, respectively — were inspired by her loss and communicated her pain and devastation on a universal level. Although Isadora Duncan suffered a horrible tragedy, she continued to follow her passion and toured extensively across Europe, the United States, and even a tour in South America.

She moved to Russia in 1921. Duncan was very interested in the revolutionary ideas that contributed to the birth of the Soviet Union and believed that her art form would be a good contribution to the establishment of its new values and culture. “Duncan’s performances and activities of her Moscow school in 1921 — 1924 also produced significant resonance in Soviet criticism, especially as this represented a major shift in her artistic sensibilities.” Indeed, many scholars of dance and history consider this to be her most creative period.

Duncan and Sergei Yesenin in 1923
Duncan and Sergey Yesenin in 1923

Although Duncan mocked the institution of marriage, she went on to marry one of Russia’s most well-known and celebrated poets, Sergey Yesenin (1895 — 1925) in 1922. She was seventeen years his senior, barely spoke or understood Russian, and wed to a man who didn’t speak English. Still, he accompanied her on tour, first to the United States and then to Europe, where “he smashed suites in the best drunken rampages.” One year later, the couple split up and Yesenin went back to Russia, where the troubled poet committed suicide in 1925.

Isadora Duncan passed away in a tragic freak accident just two years later. On September 14th, 1927, as she was being chauffeured around Nice in a Bugatti sports car “by the young man she was lining up to be her next lover, the fringes of Duncan's shawl caught in the back wheel and broke her neck instantly.” She was only fifty years old. Her remains were cremated five days later and the ashes were placed near those of her children in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery. Her autobiography, My Life, was published the same year.

“Duncan has gone down in history as a hard act to follow — a one-off original who, from mixed motives of exhibitionism and evangelicalism, believed she could change the world.” Indeed, Isadora Duncan was one of the most innovative dancers of her time. Discarding the previously established rules for dance, she created her own formula for expression, one that was built on the variables that define life. Her movement was as fluid and free as her spirit, and through the unbridled heart of this revolutionary, the world of dance was given a new pulse.

“For I was never able to understand, then or later on, why, if one wanted to do a thing, one should not do it. For I have never waited to do as I wished. This has frequently brought me to disaster and calamity, but at least I have the satisfaction of getting my own way.” — Isadora Duncan, My Life (1927)

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