Feministory: Isadora Duncan, Mother of Modern Dance

A photo of Isadora Duncan in her famous flowing grecian tunic standing in a garden surrounded by trees and plants.Isadora Duncan might be the most famous dancer you’ve never seen perform. Often referred to as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” Angela Isadora Duncan was born on May 27, 1877 in San Francisco, the youngest of four siblings born to a piano teaching mother and banker father. Shortly after Isadora was born her parents divorced and she and her siblings went with their mother to live in Oakland where they scraped by in near poverty. As Isadora grew up, she was known for going on long walks to the ocean or the forest where she would dance for hours by herself. Her dancing was something of a neighborhood legend and from a very young age Isadora’s mother would have her dance in the streets for extra income, a practice which Isadora would strongly denounce later in her life saying, “And so, out of necessity, I—a four-year-old child—was forced to dance before the public. That is why I don’t like children to dance before the public for money, because I myself have experienced what it means to dance for a piece of bread.”

Despite having her daughter dance for money, Mary, Isadora’s mother, introduced her children to music, art, poetry, plays, and novels that would become very influential in Isadora’s later work. Dance came naturally to Isadora and she was especially inspired by classic Grecian aesthetics and style. She came to an unconventional and artistic perspective on dance, school and feminism early on in her life. In her autobiography My Life, she notes that by the age of twelve she had already decided that she “would fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women.” She found her emancipation through dance, preferring natural movement as opposed to the “unnatural contortions” of modern ballet that Isadora saw as being constricting and repressive.

While often accused of appropriating ancient Greek culture, Isadora defended herself in her book The Art of Dance by saying, “To bring to life again the ancient ideal! I do not mean to say, copy it, imitate it; but to breathe its life, to recreate it in one’s self, with personal inspiration: to start from its beauty and then go toward the future.”

As she developed her style, Isadora realized she would need a wider and more receptive audience for her art than the one she found in San Francisco. With her family’s support and her unshakable self confidence, she moved to New York City. Sadly, New York was not everything Isadora hoped it would be, since she found the schools there restrictive and the audiences unappreciative. By 1899, Isadora migrated again, this time to London and then to Paris, where she heard of a vibrant artistic and receptive culture brewing. The timing was right. Isadora rented a studio to teach lessons in and within a few short years of teaching and performing, she had gained a wide following and a good deal of financial support from fans. In addition to the rich elite who fawned over her performances, Isadora also inspired many fellow artists and was the “muse” for a variety of books, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, watercolors and other art in a wide range of media.

A series of two Walkowizt watercolors of Isadora in various dancing posesAs her work became more popular, Isadora was invited to perform around the world but primarily danced her way through Europe. As much as she loved to dance, Isadora found herself resenting the constant performances and the commercial aspects of touring. As a result, she decided to open a school in 1904, this time in Germany where her troupe, nicknamed the Isadorables, flourished for some time before doing tours of their own with their “mother.” Little by little her original troupe disbanded as they found new outlets for their talents and Isadora was left with only a few loyal students who helped her train students at the next two schools she opened, one in Paris and another in Moscow.

Isadora’s belief that art should be available to the masses inspired her support for the Soviet Union, so when the government promised to supply her with a school and dancing auditorium, she lept at the chance. To Isadora, personal freedom, justice, and dance were all intertwined. Sadly, the Soviet Union’s proposed deal turned out to be something of an empty promise due to lack of funds, and Isadora found herself back on the touring cycle trying to raise money for her artistic endeavors.

Isadora was familiar with causing controversy through her performances and politics. She was even criticised for her loose white dancing tunics (in which “wardrobe malfunctions” were not unheard of) and for having the gall to dance while pregnant with her two children, Deidre and Patrick. That she was not married to either of her children’s fathers caused controversy that often detracted from her work as an artist, but was nonetheless useful for keeping Isadora in the public eye. Tragically, in 1913, both of her children and their nanny were killed in an automobile accident in which the car they were in rolled into the Seine and all those in the vehicle were drowned. In despair, Isadora returned to her family to recuperate. As her life continued, Isadora would face an increasing number of tragedies, through none would affect her quite like the loss of her children, and mostly included financial troubles, emotionally painful romantic relationships, and the subtle loss of her fan base.

Isadora’s preference for free-flowing clothing and scarves would prove to be her untimely downfall. While in Nice, France, Isadora took a ride in a convertible, but somehow her long scarf wrapped its way around the tire and she was flung from the moving vehicle once it started to move. She died that day, September 14th, 1927. She was 50 years old.

Isadora Duncan was a self-made and intensely driven, confident woman. She didn’t let the attitudes of naysayers around her dictate how she lived her life or dissuade her from accomplishing what she knew she could. She once said, “For me the dance is not only the art that gives expression through the human soul through movement, but also the foundation of a complete conception of life, more free, more harmonious, more natural.” Freedom of movement, without the restrictions of postures, forms or choreographed routines were of essential value to Isadora. She sought to inspire those around her with her unrestricted movements, unconventional ideas, and unencumbered exuberance.

by Rachel Toback
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1 Comment Has Been Posted


Even as an hetero guy, I've always admired Isa.

I hold her in the same heroic regard as Bruce Lee: both took the simple-yet-revolutionary step of breaking away from their art forms' traditionally rigid paradigms in an attempt to find a "rhythm" personal to their own bodies. Although their innovations are now commonplace in a world of mixed martial arts and <i>So You Think You Can Dance</i>, the fact that they took those first steps of breaking from the norm should never be forgotten.

Plus, like me, they were both born in San Francisco, so there's some hometown love there.

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