Born 26 May 1877, San Francisco, California; died 14 September 1927, Nice, France
Daughter of Joseph and Dora Gray Duncan; married SergeiEssenin, 1922 (separated by 1924); children: two, both died in 1913
One of the great originators of modern dance and an articulate proponent of her art, Isadora Duncan grew up in circumstances which encouraged her independent spirit. Her father abandoned his family when Duncan was an infant, and her mother was forced to support the family by giving music lessons. Duncan left school at age ten to study dance and perform in the natural, graceful, and seemingly improvisational manner that later made her famous. Although she always considered her dance American in spirit, Duncan never met with much success on the stage in her own country. She lived most of her life in Europe, where she achieved enormous critical and popular acclaim, began the first of several schools of the dance, and bore two children. The ghastly deaths of her children in 1913 in an automobile accident haunted the dancer throughout her life and lent a tragic dimension to her highly personal art.
In 1921 Duncan was invited to found a school of dance in Russia, where before the Revolution her tours had inspired innovations in the Russian ballet. During this Russian visit, Duncan met and married Russian poet Sergei Essenin, an unstable man much younger than she. But by 1924, the economically troubled Soviet government had withdrawn support for the school, and Duncan had separated from Essenin and left Russia. Thereafter she lived precariously, performing less often but creating a lasting impression when she did. In 1927 Duncan died tragically when the fringe of her shawl caught in a wheel of a sports car, breaking her neck.
Duncan's memoirs up until her 1921 departure for Russia were written during her last months and published posthumously in 1927 as My Life. There have been claims Duncan did not write these unaided, but the exuberant style is that of her essays and of the impromptu speeches she made at the end of every dance recital. (Her miscellaneous writings are collected in The Art of the Dance, 1928.) There are inaccuracies in My Life, and the writing is marred by a banality of expression—Duncan's medium was movement, not words—but Duncan did have storytelling ability and a gift for putting herself in exalted mythical contexts. Paperback editions of the autobiography, prompted by a popular 1968 film about Duncan's life, have introduced a new generation of readers to the innovative dancer.
In My Life and elsewhere Duncan articulates the conflict between art and life for the woman artist, and there is ample evidence she suffered greatly from these opposing demands. Her biographers have tended to stress the disparity between the dancer's exquisite art and her untidy personal life, but Duncan's unconventional and at times irresponsible lifestyle helped make possible her innovative art. The dance she created was a response to her need to express herself as a woman. Although My Life appears to have been commissioned by Duncan's publishers because of the author's notoriety, and although many complained it tells the story of her loves rather than of her art, the book does reveal the interdependence of Duncan's life and her work.
In her personal life Duncan demanded freedoms usually granted only to men, but nonetheless her image of herself was conventionally feminine. In My Life she describes herself as an instrument inspired to movement by great works of music, poetry, and painting (always created by men) and she revels in her role as the darling muse of male artists. At times Duncan betrayed an understandable ambivalence about the feminine role, as was revealed in her occasional neglect of her pupils. But in general, it appears Duncan was able to use her very feminine version of the woman artist as a more or less culturally permissible way of achieving her own autonomy.
Duncan's version of the woman genius was powerful: she considered herself to be not merely a performer or muse but an artist whose movements came from her soul. Thus she never practiced with mirrors, as do ballet dancers whose mechanical and prescribed movements Duncan rejected. Duncan found her model in the concepts of self-reliance, inner inspiration, and American transcendental romanticism. Like Whitman, she rejected the duality of soul and body, which is potentially damaging to the integrity of women. She called on women to learn about and take control of their own bodies: to become the sculptors, painters, and architects of themselves. Social commentator and novelist Floyd Dell was correct when he included Duncan in his 1913 book about feminists, and he was also correct when he labeled her feminism an extension of the feminine role itself.
Dell, F., Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism (1913). Duncan, I., Duncan Dancer: An Autobiography (1966). Duncan, I., and A. R. Macdougall, Isadora Duncan's Russian Days and Her Last Years in France (1929). Getz, L. Dancers and Choreographers: A Selected Bibliography (1995). Macdougall, A. R., Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love (1960). Schneider, I. I., Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years (1968). Seroff, V., The Real Isadora: A Biography (1971). Steegmuller, F., ed., "Your Isadora": The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig (1974). Terry, W., Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy (1963). Vigier, R., Gestures of Genius: Women, Dance, and the Body (1994).
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). International Dictionary of Modern Dance (1998).
The American dancer and teacher Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) is considered one of the founders of modern dance.
Isadora Duncan was born Dora Angela Duncan on May 27, 1878, in San Francisco. By the age of 6 Isadora was teaching neighborhood children to wave their arms, and by 10 she had developed a new "system" of dance with her sister Elizabeth, based on improvisation and interpretation. With her mother as accompanist and her sister as partner, Isadora taught dance and performed for the San Francisco aristocracy.
The Duncans went to Chicago and New York to advance their dancing careers. Disheartened by their reception in eastern drawing rooms, they departed for London. In Europe, Duncan won recognition. She shocked, surprised, and excited her audience and became a member of the European intellectual avantgarde, returning triumphantly to America in 1908.
Duncan attacked the system of classical ballet, which was based on movement through convention, and rejected popular theatrical dance for its superficiality. She encouraged all movement that was natural, expressive, and spontaneous. Conventional dance costumes were discarded in favor of Greek tunics and no shoes to allow the greatest possible freedom of movement.
Experimenting with body movements, she concluded that all movements were derived from running, skipping, jumping, and standing. Dance was the "movement of the human body in harmony with the movements of the earth." Inspired by Greek art, the paintings of Sandro Botticelli, Walt Whitman's poems, the instinctual movements of children and animals, and great classical music, she did not dance to the music as much as she danced the music. For her, the body expressed thoughts and feelings; each dance was unique, each movement created out of the dancer's innermost feelings. Her dances were exclusively female, celebrating the beauty and holiness of the female body and reflecting the emergence of the "new woman" of this period.
After World War I Duncan traveled throughout Europe. Her first school (in Berlin, before the war) had collapsed for lack of funds. In 1921 she accepted the Soviet government's offer to establish a school in Moscow. But financial problems continued. Meanwhile, she married the poet Sergei Yesenin. When the couple came to America in 1924 at the height of the "Red scare," Duncan was criticized for her "Bolshevik" dances. Returning to Russia, her husband committed suicide.
By 1925 Duncan's life had been filled with tragedy. In 1913 her two illegitimate children had been accidently drowned; she had had a stillbirth; and she became disillusioned with the Soviet Union. She was famous but penniless. In 1927, while riding in an open sports car, her scarf caught in a wheel and she was strangled.
Isadora Duncan's death was mourned by many. She left no work that could be performed again, no school or teaching method, and few pupils, but with her new view of movement she had revolutionized dance.
There is no balanced assessment of Isadora Duncan's life. The best introduction is her own passionate and sensitive autobiography, My Life (1927). She has been eulogized by friends—see Mary Desti, The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan, 1921-1927 (1929)—exposed by enemies, and sometimes appreciated by scholars. A scholarly but badly written biography is Ilya Schneider, Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years(1969). Recent, more dispassionate accounts are Allan Ross Macdougall, Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love (1960), and Walter Terry, Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy (1964). □