The mother of American modern dance, Isadora Duncan transformed not only the arts but society itself by her intense celebration of the female creative spirit. On May 27, 1877, she was born Dora Angela Duncan in San Francisco. Her father was a banker whose involvement in a scandal depleted the family fortune soon after Dora was born. As a result, her parents divorced, and her mother took the four Duncan children to nearby Oakland, moving from house to house, trying to keep a step ahead of the bill collectors. With few financial resources available, Dora and her siblings were taught to scorn material possessions but to love literature, music, and dance. Often left with no adult supervision, they also learned to be independent, even as small children. Dora showed an early talent for social dancing, which she learned from her older sister Elizabeth. By the time Dora was 10, she had quit school to supplement the family income by teaching dance lessons. Soon she was regularly performing dance recitals for San Francisco’s elite.
To further her career, Duncan and her family moved first to Chicago and then to New York City, where in 1896 she was hired by a theatrical company as a dancer and an actress. She spent two unhappy years in the job, all the while resenting the company director’s authority over her and her work. Duncan had a more satisfying experience giving private performances in the homes of New York’s upper class. Although she studied ballet while living in the city, her performances were far more infiuenced by the Delsarte system of movement that was then in vogue. Developed by acting and singing teacher François Delsarte, it taught series of gestures as a means toward expressing emotions. Drawing from Delsarte, Duncan, dressed in classical Grecian garb, translated poetry and music into movement, often striking poses reminiscent of ancient Greek statues.
Duncan’s success as a dancer continued after she moved to Europe in 1899. Despite her limited formal education, she took the opportunity to steep herself in European culture and art. She read voraciously, studied museum collections, and cultivated friendships with noted scholars and artists. Whether scrutinizing works at the British Museum or contemplating the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, the goal of her self-education was to learn more about the body and its movements.
Through her experiences in Europe, Duncan refined her performance style. In a radical departure from most dance performances of the day, she eschewed scenery, narratives, and large ensembles. Duncan instead danced solos against a stark curtain, usually wearing only a simple, fiowing tunic or robe. The bare setting gave the audience nothing to watch but Duncan’s fiuid movements, which were inspired by her emotional response to her musical accompaniment. Rather than dancing the prescribed steps of the ballet tradition, she sought to discover movements that were natural to the body and that observed gravity’s pull rather than trying to defy it. Her attitude toward dance was also revolutionary. In a time when popular dance performance was considered somewhat unseemly, she insisted on playing only in the most respectable venues, such as opera houses and concert halls. Duncan also dismissed standard dance music, instead setting her movements to classical compositions. Some critics considered this approach scandalous. But in eyes of most audience members, her dances did not debase the music. The music instead helped to elevate her dances to the status of high art.
Duncan’s dancing was hailed throughout Europe and Russia. But in the United States, the reception to her work was decidedly chilly. On a 1908 tour, she was frustrated by the contempt she inspired in many of her countrypeople. Much of their reaction, however, had less to do with her performances than with her insistence on publicly flaunting convention. She had numerous love affairs and unapologetically gave birth out of wedlock to two children by different fathers. In her always volatile personal life, Duncan suffered a nearly unendurable tragedy in 1913 when her two children drowned in the Seine after a traffic accident. She tried to cure her misery by impulsively getting pregnant, but her third child died soon after birth. These emotional trials, combined with the outbreak of World War I, seemed to inspire Duncan’s art to move in a new direction. Her dancing became more static and dramatic, focusing increasingly on strong, bold gestures rather than the more lilting movements she had favored in her youth.
After the war, Duncan became determined to start a school of dance. She had previously created one in Germany and one in France, but both had been short-lived. For years she scoured for funds. Finally in 1921 the Soviet Union promised to provide the money she needed. In Moscow she set out to create her school, envisioning it not as a training ground for professional dancers, but as a means of promoting dance as a vital component of modern life. To her disappointment, the Soviet government reneged on its offer. Desperate to raise the funds for her school on her own, Duncan returned to the United States for a tour. She brought with her Sergei Essenin, a young Soviet poet whom she married in 1922.
The U.S. tour was a disaster from the start. Her association with the Soviet Union left her open to accusations of being a communist. Characteristic of the American response, the famed evangelist Billy Sunday condemned her as a “Bolshevik hussy.” Adding to her soiled reputation was the erratic behavior of Essenin, whose mental illness contributed to his suicide in 1925. The bad press eventually lead to Duncan’s deportation. She spent her last years in Russia, Germany, and France. Although her freewheeling lifestyle had taken its toll on her body, she still had enough of a commanding presence to give a celebrated final performance at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris in 1927.
In the same year, on September 14, Duncan crawled into her car, ending a visit in Nice by saying, “Goodbye, my friends, I’m off to glory” words that would become famous for their irony. Seconds later, Isadora Duncan was dead. Her long scarf had become caught in the spokes of one of the car’s wheels. As the vehicle moved forward, the scarf snapped her neck, killing her instantly.
Today, Duncan’s dances are seldom performed, yet her contribution to dance still looms large. She gave the world the idea that a single dancer on a bare stage could create a work of art, a notion that is at the foundation of all modern dance. She also liberated dancers from the confines of constricting costumes and programmed steps, freeing them to express personal emotion through movements of their own invention. The immense value Duncan placed on independence, on stage and off, also provided a powerful example to young women of the early 20th century seeking their own liberation from social conventions. Her admirers saw that Duncan’s life may have been undisciplined and reckless, but it was also always her own.
Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
Daly, Ann. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Duncan, Isadora. My Life. 1927. Reprint, New York: Liveright, 1972.
Macdougall, Allan Ross. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love. New York: T. Nelson, 1960.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Isadora (1968). MCA Home Video, VHS, 1992.
Isadora Duncan: Technique and Repertory Dance. Princeton Book Company, VHS, 1995.