Duncan, Isadora (1878–1927)

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Duncan, Isadora (1878–1927)

American dancer, the most prominent of her time, who invented the "New System" of improvised movements interpretive of poetry, music, and the rhythms of nature. Born Angela Isadora Duncan on May 27, 1878, in San Francisco; strangled by her shawl in a freak accident in Nice, France, on September 14, 1927; daughter of Mary Isadora (Gray) Duncan (erstwhile piano and dance teacher) and Joseph Charles Duncan (engaged in sporadic businesses); married Sergei Esenin (a poet), on May 22, 1922 (divorced); children: (with Gordon Craig) Deirdre; (with Eugene Singer) Patrick Augustus.

Went on dance tours with Loie Fuller troupe in Berlin, Leipzig, and Munich (1901); began solo performances in Vienna, Budapest (1902), Berlin, Paris, Vélizy, various German cities (1903), Athens, Vienna, Munich, Berlin (Aeschylus' The Supplicants all with Greek boys' chorus), Paris (Beethoven Soirée), Bayreuth (Tannhäuser), St. Petersburg (Chopin) (1904), St. Petersburg (Beethoven), Moscow, Kiev, Germany, Brussels, Netherlands, Stockholm (1905), Warsaw, Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia (1906–07), St. Petersburg (Iphigénie), London, New York (Beethoven's Seventh Symphony), Boston, Washington, D.C. (1908), Paris, U.S., (1909), Paris (Gluck's Orphée), New York (Wagner) (1911), Rome (1912), Russia, Paris (with pupils, the Isadorables, 1913), New York (with Isadorables, 1914), New York (1915), Paris, New York, South America (1916), New York (with Isadorables), San Francisco (1917), San Francisco (1918); Paris twice (second engagement with Isadorables), Athens (1920), Paris (with Isadorables), Belgium, the Netherlands, London, Soviet Union (1921), U.S., including New York, Boston, Middle West, Brooklyn (1922), New York, Paris, Moscow, other Soviet cities (1923), Ukraine, Moscow, Berlin (1924), Paris (1927).

In 1927 one of the most flamboyant autobiographies of the 1920s was written. Even the first chapter began audaciously:

The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother's womb. Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and iced champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, "In my mother's womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne—the food of Aphrodite."

Here one finds many of the qualities that would always mark the personality of Isadora Duncan—the precociousness, the narcissism, the sense of destiny, and above all the love of dance. For despite a life that even actress Vanessa Redgrave could not fully capture in the film Isadora (1969), it is as a dancer that Duncan must be seen. And a dancer she was, the most innovative of her time. With Duncan one had an overt celebration of the body, the use of Greek themes and symphonic music, the introduction of political and social themes. She used to tell her youthful pupils, "Listen to the music with your soul," and it was advice that she always followed. From her flowing garbs that helped revolutionize the dress of women to a platform style that centered on spontaneity, Duncan altered dance as an art form until it became politics.

Duncan's career contains many paradoxes. As biographer Walter Terry notes, she was wholly dedicated to her art but undisciplined in her life. She was a true "innocent of spirit" whose dancing and behavior were often deemed scandalous. She considered herself a revolutionary yet moved in circles filled with royalty. Her moods vacillated between laughter and depression, affection and anger, generosity and egoism.

Angela Isadora Duncan was born on May 27, 1878, in San Francisco, the second daughter and youngest of four children of Dora Gray Duncan and Joseph Charles Duncan. Dora grew up amid prosperous circumstances, her own father being naval officer of the Port of San Francisco and a member of the California legislature. Joseph was an adventurer par excellence. Thirty years older than Dora when they married, he was a divorced man with four grown children. His erstwhile occupations included running a lottery, publishing three newspapers, owning a private art gallery, and directing an auction business. When, in 1878, a bank that he had founded failed, Joseph abandoned his family for Los Angeles, where he again divorced and remarried.

During Isadora's childhood in San Francisco and Oakland, the impoverished Duncans were continually moving from one rooming house to another. Isadora later wrote, "My first recollection—a clear sensual remembrance of being thrown from a burning window to the arms of a policeman." Her mother, often pursued by landlords and grocers, earned a meager livelihood by giving piano lessons and knitting caps and mittens, which young Isadora peddled from door to door. The unsupervised Duncan children climbed walls and trees, ate and slept irregularly, and in general lived without constraint.

At age six, Isadora, already showing a talent for the dance, began teaching local children. While still young, she left school, which she considered useless, and aided the family by giving lessons in social dancing. At 13, she gave her initial dance recital, which was held at Oakland's First Unitarian Church. In 1893, Joseph, having recovered his fortune, provided Dora and her children with a San Francisco mansion possessing a tennis court, windmill, and barn (which the family converted into a theater). However, he soon suffered a financial reverse and the mansion had to be sold.

In 1895, Dora took Isadora to live in Chicago, their only possessions being a small trunk filled with their belongings, some old-fashioned jewelry, and $25 in cash. For a week, mother and daughter lived on tomatoes. Isadora became a dancer for about three weeks at the Masonic Roof Garden, earning $20 a week under the billing "The California Faun." She attracted the attention of Ivan Miroski, a 45-year-old Pole, and the couple fell in love. The romance only broke up when Isadora learned that Ivan already had a wife in London.

In Chicago, Duncan caught the eye of producer Augustin Daly, who in 1896 brought her to New York to perform in a pantomime called Mme. Pygmalion. Then followed two tours, which included Duncan playing a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a spirit in The Tempest. Her salary started at $15 a week, which was later raised to $25. Although Daly sent the entire troupe to London the following year, Duncan developed what she called "an absolute nausea" for the theater, and in 1898 she left the Daly Company. Encouraged by composer Ethelbert Nevin, she rented a studio in Carnegie Hall and gave individual dance performances before such socialites as Mrs. Whitelaw Reid (Elisabeth Mills Reid , 1858–1931). While giving a series of dances illustrating The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the blue-eyed, auburn-haired Duncan danced with bare arms and legs, something so shocking to Victorian audiences that several walked out.

Life broke her, but it never diminished her.

—Fredrika Blair

Duncan was already beginning to live out an embryonic philosophy of the art: "My dance is not a dance of the body but of the spirit. My body moves because my spirit moves it." She was much influenced by the theories of France's François Delsarte, a man who had never taught a dance student. Delsarte stressed the relationship between movement and emotion and encouraged dancing in white robes to the accompaniment of poetry. In the 1890s, however, dance was still seen as merely a fashionable entertainment, not as a genuine art form, and Isadora's career soon reached an impasse. The Duncan family was again penniless.

In 1899, Isadora, her mother, sister Elizabeth , and brother Raymond moved to London, traveling by cattle boat under an assumed name, O'Gorman, so as not to compromise Isadora's status as the "pet" of New York society. Almost immediately, she was discovered by Charles Hall, director of the New Gallery. By 1900, Duncan was performing before minor royalty and society matrons.

That same year, the family moved to Paris, where she and Raymond began the day by dancing in the Luxembourg Gardens. She was soon launched into the city's society. In 1901, she joined the troupe of Loie Fuller , an American dancer who owned her own theater in Paris. As part of Fuller's entourage, Duncan was touring Central Europe. In February 1902, her real debut took place in Vienna before a highly selected artistic gathering. But she was just as popular with the less prominent. She describes, for example, her welcome in Munich:

The students went fairly crazy. Night after night they unharnessed the horses from my carriage and drew me through the streets, singing their student songs and leaping with lighted torches on either side of my victoria [carriage]. Often, for hours, they would group themselves outside the hotel window and sing, until I threw them my flowers and handkerchiefs, which they would divide, each bearing a portion in their caps.

In Budapest, she entered into the first of her many love affairs, this one with Oscar Beregi, a leading young actor with the city's National Theater. Beregi recited the classical odes that served as her accompaniment. His ardor for Duncan soon cooled, however, and it was a shattered Isadora Duncan who went to Munich, where her recital was a great success: "My life has known but two motives—Love and Art—often Love destroyed Art, and often the imperious call of Art put a tragic end to Love. For these two have no accord but only constant battle."

By then, she was sponsored by the Hungarian impresario Alexander Grosz, who risked his entire capital to back her performance at Berlin's famous Kroll Opera House. She became so sought after that varied artists called her "heilige Isadora" (Saint Isadora).

In an effort to articulate verbally her unorthodox style, she gave a lecture that March at the Berlin Presse Verein that was later published in pamphlet form as "The Dance of the Future." "The dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks," she wrote. "For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise."

In 1903, after further performances in Paris and Germany, Duncan took the family to Athens, there to look for a site where—as she said—"the Clan Duncan" could "build a temple that should be characteristic of us." They bought a hill outside the city. Named Kopanos, it had belonged to five shepherds. She attempted to finance her scheme by public recitals, and indeed her final performance was attended by the nation's monarch, King George I. Once again, however, she was broke.

In 1904, she was back in Germany. That summer, she danced to Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at Bayreuth with the approval of the composer's widow Cosima Wagner . Towards the end of the year, with the aid of her sister Elizabeth, Isadora opened her first school of the dance at Grünewald, a suburb of Berlin. Twenty girls, between the ages of four and eight, enrolled. Her most gifted students would henceforth be called "the Isadorables" and go on tour with her.

Professionally, during the next decade, Duncan met with nothing but success. Tours took her throughout Europe and the United States. In the late winter of 1908, while performing in Russia, the stronghold of ballet, she had a flirtation with Constantin Stanislavski, the innovative director of the Moscow Art Theater. That summer, she performed before the king and queen of England, Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark . In the fall, while appearing at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, she created controversy by dancing to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. At a presentation held in Washington, D.C., she enchanted President Theodore Roosevelt, who praised her art.

For Duncan, however, the most important event in her life was her meeting in Berlin in December 1904 with Gordon Craig. The 32-year-old son of the famed actress Ellen Terry was captivated when he first saw her perform at the Kroll Opera house. Already married once and the father of several children with two other women, one a young violinist named Elena Meo , he fell in love with Duncan when first introduced. Craig's conception of the stage was manifested through a simplicity of designs, which in its own way paralleled Duncan's struggle for eliminating formalism in the dance. Their affair was stormy, helped neither by her frequent absences on tour nor his refusal to sever relations with Meo, who in January 1905 gave birth to their third child. In September 1906, Duncan gave birth to their daughter Deirdre.

Craig soon found himself professionally jealous of Duncan, who refused to supply him with the funds he was always requesting. (She could never manage her finances.) He also felt guilty over his treatment of Meo. Isadora, for her part, was equally resentful of Gordon, whom she saw as always seeking to make more female conquests. She later wrote: "I could not work, I could not dance…. I realized that this state of things must cease. Either Craig's art or mine—to give up my Art I knew to be impossible."

In October 1907, Craig broke off the relationship. Yet within a year she had found a new lover, one whose relationship with her would be equally tempestuous. This was the 41-year-old-multimillionaire (Paris) Eugene Singer, scion of the sewing-machine fortune. By this time, with highly successful engagements at the Théâtre Lyrique de la Gaité in the French capital, Duncan had reached the summit of her career. It was there, in fact, that she met Singer, whom she saw as an instrument for rescuing her now bankrupt dancing school. She remembered that when she received his calling card, "Suddenly there rang in my brain, 'Here is my millionaire.'" The handsome and cultured Singer had already been married and was the father of five children. He was passionately in love with Duncan, taking her on a Mediterranean cruise in his private yacht and installing her new school at Beaulieu, near Nice. But Duncan was not expediential, for she was deeply attracted to the man whom in her autobiography she calls "Lohengrin."

In May 1910, their son Patrick Augustus was born in Beaulieu. Singer was anxious to marry Duncan, but she was unwilling. Moreover, while living with Singer at his château in Paignton, Devonshire, she entered into a brief affair with her accompanist, André Capelet, for whom she first had a strong physical aversion. The relationship was terminated once Singer discovered it. After an American tour early in 1911, she returned to the city of Paris and resumed her relationship with Singer. She had dreams of creating a major building devoted to the performing arts, which would have Louis Sue as architect, Craig as set designer, her brother Augustin as the leading actor, and of course Singer as the bankroller. The edifice, she hoped, would be a "meeting place and haven for all the great artists of the world." Such a combination, however, could not help but be volatile, and the project was soon aborted. By the end of 1912, Singer became disgusted with Duncan's open flirting with playwright Henri Bataille and broke with her.

In 1913, after a tour in Russia, she returned to the city of Paris. On the afternoon of April 19, while just after having lunched with Singer, she learned to her horror that her two children, together with their English governess, had drowned in the Seine en route back to their temporary quarters in Versailles. While her chauffeur was cranking up a stalled motor, the closed auto had accidentally rolled into the river. The burning of the three coffins took place before her eyes.

Though Duncan would perform many times again, henceforth she was a changed woman. Her hair suddenly turned white, something that she tried to disguise by dying it red. Indeed, she believed she had no cause for which to live. She first tried to ease her sorrow by assisting her brother Raymond in relief work among refugees of the Second Balkan War in the province of Epirus, Albania. She then began aimless wandering, initially in Switzerland, then in Italy. Her close friend Eleonora Duse , a major Italian actress, brought her to her home in Viareggio. Obsessed with the desire to bear another child, Duncan became pregnant with the help of a young Italian sculptor. When the young man—already engaged to be married—broke off the affair, Duncan showed no anger. In August 1914, the infant son died hours after birth. Duse told her: "You must return to your art. It is your only salvation."

Duncan returned to the city of Paris, where Singer bought her a mansion in the suburb of Bellevue. Her neighbor was the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who was amazed by her capacity for recovery: "Isadora Duncan is the greatest woman I have ever known, and her art has influenced my work more than any other inspiration that has come to me. Sometimes I think she is the greatest woman the world has ever known."

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Duncan transported her pupils to the United States, installing them in an estate near Tarrytown, New York. She performed in New York and Chicago, but she could not obtain the funds needed to establish a municipal dance school in New York. Hence, she temporarily deposited her students in a Swiss boarding school, while she toured the Continent.

To the French, Duncan was more than a great dancer; she was a beloved public figure. Not only did she entertain troops and dance "The Marseillaise" with an intense patriotic fervor, she permitted Bellevue to become an army hospital. Narrates biographer Fredrika Blair :

Noble, resolute, and avenging, clad in a fiery tunic, beaten to the ground to rise with superhuman strength, she seemed a whole nation at arms, and when in a final gesture of defiance, she faced the enemy with bared breast, the people rose, tears coursing down their cheeks, and shouted until the walls rang.

In 1916, Duncan toured South America, where she antagonized the Argentineans by dancing to their national anthem in a nightclub but charmed the Brazilians by her Polonaises. A year later, she briefly resumed her affair with Singer in New York but the inevitable break soon followed. At a small dinner party at the city's Plaza Hotel, Singer announced that he had taken up an option to buy Madison Square Garden, indeed that he was planning to install Isadora's school there. "Do you mean to tell me," Duncan said, "that you expect me to direct a school in Madison Square Garden? I suppose you want me to advertise prizefights with my dancing." Singer, enraged, left the room without a word, never seeing her again.

While touring San Francisco, she fell in love with the noted pianist Harold Bauer. Bauer was a married man, and the association was a brief one. Her loneliness did not last long, for in New York, she took on another lover, the distinguished pianist Walter Morse Rummel, ten years her junior. In 1920, Rummel and Duncan toured Greece with six of Duncan's female students. When Rummel fell in love with one of Duncan's pupils, she was again shattered. As Blair notes:

Each love affair after the death of her children had been an attempt to regain her equilibrium, to give her life meaning, and to make it possible for her to work. Each failure, subsequently, plunged her further into despair. In every loss, she felt the ache of all previous losses as if for the first time.

Still desperate to establish her own school of dancing, in the spring of 1921 she accepted an invitation of Leonid Krassine, head of the Soviet Trade Commission, to set up an academy in Russia. In accepting his invitation, she wrote:

I shall never hear of money in exchange for my work. I want a studio-workshop, a house for myself and pupils, simple food, simple tunics, and the opportunity to give our best work…. I want to dance for the masses, for the working people who need my art and have never had the money to come and see me. And I want to dance for them for nothing…. If you accept me on these terms I will come and work for the future of the Russian Republic and its children.

Arriving in Moscow in July 1921, Duncan soon was performing before Lenin. When she danced Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave at a concert marking the fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian dictator was so enamored that he stood up and shouted, "Bravo, bravo, Miss Duncan!" She was given an empty mansion in a once fashionable part of the city to teach some 50 students. Yet food and fuel were scarce, and within a month the Soviet government withdrew its support. She responded by urging the Soviets to be more revolutionary in the culture it supported while, at the same time, hoping that Herbert Hoover's American Relief Association would come to her aid.

That November, she met Sergei Esenin, a poet some 17 years her junior. The encounter was dramatic. At the home of artist Georgy Yakulov, Esenin came to the couch where she was sitting, cast himself at her feet, and called her "golden head." Soon he had moved into her quarters. Although Esenin had a record of depression and drunkenness and had already divorced one woman, he was a respected bard who had helped found the Imaginist movement. Duncan was attracted by his looks, talent, and vulnerability. Again she was entering into a volatile relationship, with Esenin sometimes treating her as an object of worship, sometimes beating and cursing her in the most vile language possible, and sometimes departing with the promise never to return.

Yet in May 1922 the couple married, doing so in a civil ceremony that at the same time made her a Soviet citizen. Duncan never really learned Russian, and throughout their relationship they usually communicated through sign language and interpreters. First they journeyed through Western Europe, then in October arrived in the United States. Duncan was angry at being detained by the American immigration authorities, who suspected her of being a Communist spy. She showed her bitterness in Boston. At the end of a performance of Marche Slave, she seized the red scarf attached to her costume, thereby revealing more of her body than usual, and shouted: "This is red! So am I! It is the color of life and vigor. You were once wild here. Don't let them tame you."

Boston's mayor James Curley immediately banned further performances in his city and the departments of Labor, Justice, and State investigated possible Soviet ties. She justified her removal of the shawl by telling the press:

They say I mismanaged my garments. A mere disarrangement of a garment means nothing…. Why should I care what part of my body I reveal? Is not all body and soul an instrument through which the artist expresses his inner message of beauty?

Sergei did not help matters by ripping off part of Isadora's dress at a party, insulting his hosts, and using the world "Yid" (the printed text had said "Jew") in a dramatic reading. When Duncan left the United States in January 1923, she is reported to have told reporters:

I really ought not to say a word to you newspapermen. You have succeeded in ruining my tour, when I hoped so much to earn

money to take back to the starving children in Moscow…. I am not an anarchist or a Bolshevik. My husband and I are revolutionists. All geniuses worthy of the name are. Every artist has to be to make a mark in the world today…. Materialism is the curse of America…. I would rather live in Russia on black food and vodka than here in the best hotels. You know nothing of Food, of Love, of Art…. So goodbye America. I shall never see you again.

When the couple arrived at Paris' Crillon, Esenin smashed the hotel furniture, forcing Duncan to pay damages. By the fall, the couple was back in Moscow. Within months, Esenin had left her for a granddaughter of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy , and in December 1925 he hanged himself.

As often with Duncan, the departure of a lover unleashed her creativity. Her special dance in honor of the recently fallen Lenin received particularly strong accolades. Still anxious concerning her school, then in a village named Litvino 50 miles from Moscow, in September 1924 she performed in Berlin. This time she found her powers waning and herself, as she said, "nearly on the verge of suicide." Overweight for a dancer and looking far older than her 47 years, she was again broke.

In her last two years, she lived in Nice, often secretly financed by such friends as Craig and Singer. Here she took on her last lover, Victor Seroff, a Russian pianist who later wrote a eulogistic biography. (The first sentence reads, "Isadora Duncan was the greatest performing artist that the United States ever produced," although the book usually has a more detached tone.) She gave her final performance in July 1927 at Paris' Théâtre Mogator in the full knowledge that this was her swan song.

That same year, Duncan's autobiography, My Life, was published. Although praised at the time for its candor, it is unreliable in a number of ways. She took several years off her age, exaggerated the hardships of her second visit to London (the first goes unmentioned), and probably distorted her initial meeting with Craig. She ended her account with her departure to Russia in 1921 and planned to write a sequel on her two years in the Soviet Union.

On September 14, 1927, while in Nice, Duncan took a ride in a Bugatti sports car. Although broke as usual, she pretended she was considering purchasing the auto. She bid her friends goodbye with the words, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire." ("Farewell, my friends. I go to glory.") Just as the car started, her long-fringed shawl caught itself in the spokes of a wheel, crushing her larynx and breaking her neck. The driver sobbed, "I have killed the Madonna." Five days later, the body of Isadora Duncan was cremated, the ashes placed near those of her children in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery.


Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. NY: Horace Liveright, 1927.

Seroff, Victor. The Real Isadora. NY: Dial, 1971.

Terry, Walter. Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1963.

suggested reading:

Loewenthal, Lilian. The Search for Isadora: The Legend and Legacy of Isadora Duncan. Pennington, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1993.

Macdougall, A.R. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love. NY: Thomas Nelson, 1960.

Magriel, Paul, ed. Isadora Duncan. NY: Henry Holt, 1947.

McVay, Gordon. Isadora and Esenin. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980.

Steegmuller, Francis, ed. "Your Isadora": The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig. NY: Random House, 1961.


Craig-Duncan Collection, Irma Duncan Rogers Collection, and Dance Collections, all at the Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York.

Isadora Duncan file, Bibliotèque of Conservatoure de Musique, Paris.

Gordon Craig Collection, Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris.

Archive Internationale de la Danse, Bibliotèque de l'-Opera, Paris.

related media:

Isadora (131 min.), fictionalized account starring Vanessa Redgrave, James Fox, Jason Robards, screenplay by Margaret Drabble , Clive Exton, and Melvyn Bragg, Universal Pictures, London, 1969.

Justus Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

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Duncan, Isadora (1878–1927)

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