Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan
Birth name Angela Isadora Duncan
Born May 27, 1877(1877-05-27), San Francisco, California, U.S.A
Died September 14, 1927(1927-09-14) (aged 50)
Nice, France
Nationality American
Field Dance & choreography
Movement Modern/Contemporary dance

Isadora Duncan (May 27, 1877 — September 14, 1927) was a dancer, considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. Born in the United States, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 50. In the United States she was popular only in New York, and only later in her life. She performed to acclaim throughout Europe.

Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in an automobile accident in Nice, France when she was passenger in an Amilcar, and her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, breaking her neck.


Early life

Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, the youngest of four siblings. Her older brothers were Augustin Duncan and Raymond Duncan; her older sister was Elizabeth Duncan. Their parents were Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922). Soon after Isadora's birth, her father lost the bank and he was publicly disgraced. Her parents were divorced by 1880 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and her mother Dora moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a pianist and music teacher. In her early years, Duncan did attend school but, finding it to be constricting to her individuality, she dropped out. As her family were very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children to earn extra money.[citation needed]

In 1895 Duncan became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York. She soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899 she decided to move to Europe, first to London and then a year later, to Paris. Within two years she achieved both notoriety and success. Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in the 1898 sinking of the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan.[citation needed]


Isadora Duncan performing barefoot. Photo by Arnold Genthe during her 1915–18 American tour.

Montparnasse's developing Bohemian environment did not suit her. In 1909 Duncan moved to two large apartments at 5 rue Danton, where she lived on the ground floor and used the first floor for her dance school. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation, emotion and the human form. Duncan believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature"; she gained a wide following that allowed her to set up a school to teach.

Duncan became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs, watercolors, prints and paintings of her. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built in 1913, her likeness was carved in its bas-relief over the entrance by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and included in painted murals of the nine muses by Maurice Denis in the auditorium.

In 1916 Duncan traveled to Brazil and performed at Rio de Janeiro's Theatro Municipal in August and at São Paulo's Teatro Municipal on September 2, 3 and 5 with pianist Maurice Dumesnil. Writer and journalist Paulo Barreto, known as João do Rio, claimed to have seen her dance "naked" in the forest of Tijuca, in front of Rio's most famous waterfall..[citation needed]

In 1922 she acted on her sympathy for the social and political revolution in the new Soviet Union and moved to Moscow. She cut a striking figure in the increasingly austere post-revolution capital, but her international prominence brought welcome attention to the new regime's artistic and cultural ferment. The Russian government's failure to follow through on extravagant promises of support for Duncan's work, combined with the country's spartan living conditions, sent her back to the West in 1924.

Throughout her career Duncan did not like the commercial aspects of public performance, regarding touring, contracts and other practicalities as distractions from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. A gifted, if unconventional pedagogue, she was the founder of three schools dedicated to teaching her dance philosophy to groups of young girls (a brief effort to include boys was unsuccessful). The first, in Grunewald, Germany, gave rise to her most celebrated troupe of pupils, dubbed the Isadorables, who took her surname and subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently. The second school was short lived prior to World War I at a château outside Paris. She founded the third while in Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Duncan's teaching and her pupils caused her both pride and anguish. Her sister, Elizabeth Duncan, took over the German school and adapted it to the Teutonic philosophy of her German husband. The Isadorables were subject to ongoing hectoring from Duncan over their willingness to perform commercially; Lisa Duncan was permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs. The most notable of the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Isadora Duncan's departure. She ran the school there, angering her mentor Duncan by allowing students to perform in public and commercial venues.

Personal life

Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual. She alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922-23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!". [1]

Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock—the first, Deirdre (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick (born May 1, 1910),[2] by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children died in an accident on the Seine River on April 19, 1913. The children were in the car with their nurse, returning home after lunch with Isadora and Paris Singer. The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision with another car. He got out to hand-crank the engine, but forgot to set the parking brake. The car rolled across the Boulevard Bourdon, down the embankment and into the river. The children and the nanny drowned.[2]

Following the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating in Corfu with her brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse. The fact that Duse was just coming out of a relationship with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship, but there has never been definite proof that the two were involved romantically.[3] In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger — the sculptor Romano Romanelli[4] — to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did become pregnant after the deaths of her elder two children. She gave birth to a son, who lived only a few hours and was never named.

In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States; his alcoholism resulted in drunken rages, with repeated destruction of furniture of their hotel rooms, bringing Duncan negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow, where he soon was placed in a mental institution. Released from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925, aged 30.

She had a lengthy and passionate affair with female poet Mercedes de Acosta.[5] Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of correspondence. In one from 1927, Duncan wrote: (quoted by Hugo Vickers in "Loving Garbo") "...A slender body, hands soft and white, for the service of my delight, two sprouting breasts round and sweet, invite my hungry mouth to eat, from whence two nipples firm and pink, persuade my thirsty soul to drink, and lower still a secret place where I'd fain hide my loving face...."[6] In another letter to de Acosta she wrote: "Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you—to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish." Isadora, June 28, 1926.[6] De Acosta had once proclaimed that from the moment she first saw Isadora Duncan, she looked upon her as a great genius, and was taken by her completely.[6]

Later life

By the end of her life Duncan's performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts. She spent her final years moving between Paris and the Mediterranean, running up debts at hotels. She spent short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by a decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography. They hoped it might be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald recalled how she and her husband sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. He would speak of how memorable it was, but what Zelda recalled was that while all eyes were watching Duncan, Zelda was able to steal the salt and pepper shakers from the table. [7]

In her book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait, Sewell Stokes, who met Duncan in the last years of her life, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan's autobiography My Life was published in 1927. Composer Percy Grainger called Isadora's autobiography a "life-enriching masterpiece." [8]


Tomb of Isadora Duncan at Père Lachaise Cemetery

Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in an automobile accident in Nice, France, at the age of 50. The scarf was hand-painted silk from the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov.

On the night of September 14, 1927, Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar[9] automobile of a handsome French-Italian mechanic Benoît Falchetto, whom she had nicknamed "Buggatti" (sic). Before getting into the car, she reportedly said to her friend Mary Desti and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" (Goodbye, my friends. I go to glory!). However, according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan's body in the morgue, Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan's last words. Instead, she told Wescott, Duncan said, "Je vais à l'amour" (I am off to love). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.

When Falchetto drove off, Duncan's large silk scarf, a gift from Desti, draped around her neck, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. As The New York Times noted in its obituary: "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement."[10] Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck.[11] The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous."[citation needed] At her death, Duncan was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the U.S.[citation needed]

Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her beloved children[12] in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The headstone of her grave contains the inscription in French: "The Paris Opera Ballet School."


Virtually single-handedly, Isadora restored dance to a high place among the arts. Breaking with convention, Isadora traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art.[11] She developed within this idea, free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing. With free-flowing costumes, bare feet and loose hair, Duncan restored dancing to a new vitality using the solar plexus and the torso as the generating force for all movements to follow. Her celebrated simplicity was oceanic in depth and Isadora is credited with inventing what later came to be known as Modern Dance.

Today the incorrect notion still persists that when Isadora died, her dancing died with her. It is, however, through the dancers in her school and performing companies throughout the world that Duncan's art continues today as a classic but living contribution to the world of dance, reaching far beyond her own lifetime, affecting the very core of today's perception of dance.[citation needed]

A very important lineage for the perpetuation of Duncan's work has been moved forward through Anna Duncan and Irma Duncan, two of the six adopted artistic daughters of Isadora. This coaching and repertory has been passed, with its integrity fully intact, to third generation Duncan dancer Lori Belilove whose direct lineage and prestigious performing career have earned her an international reputation as the premier interpreter and ambassador of the dance of Isadora Duncan.[13] She founded The Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation in 1979 and The Isadora Duncan Dance Company in 1989. The Company is the premiere Duncan Company performing in the world today and has performed to national and international acclaim in dance festivals around the world and in such prestigious New York venues as the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse, Whitney Museum of American Art's Equitable Series, 92nd Street Y, Carnegie Hall, Duke Theater on 42nd Street, Judson Dance Theater and Symphony Space.[14] Photographs and articles of the Isadora Duncan Dance Company have appeared in numerous international dance publications and periodicals including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Dance Magazine, Time Out, Backstage, Ballet Internationale, Korean Times, Dancar Magazine (Brazil), Dance Magazine Australia, The Greek-American, and the book, Dance Photos, published by Dance Ink, as well as a photo layout in Fitness Magazine. The Foundation and Company's performances, master classes, workshops, and teacher training certifications enable children, college students and professional dancers to truly experience the purity, timelessness, authentic phrasing, and musicality that has been passed down to Lori Belilove and so to her dancers through the direct line of Isadora Duncan's legacy.

Duncan's insistence on more natural movement than that performed in ballet, along with the use of unrestricted costumes and utilization of emotional expression were highly influential on other dancers. While her schools in Europe did not survive for long, her work had impact in the art and her style is still danced by a new generation of loyal followers based on the instruction of Maria-Theresa Duncan, the last of the Isadorables. Maria-Theresa co-founded the Isadora Duncan International Institute (IDII) in New York in 1977. She personally passed on the original choreography to one of her pupils, Jeanne Bresciani, who is now the artistic director and director of education of the Institute. Although Maria-Theresa died in 1987, IDII continues to educate and instruct in the original choreography, style and techniques of Isadora Duncan through the tutelage of Bresciani. Graduates of the IDII certification programs also perform Duncan's choreography and hold classes in the Duncan technique.[citation needed]

The famous poet and writer Carl Sandburg in his poem Isadora Duncan wrote: "The wind? I am the wind. The sea and the moon? I am the sea and the moon. Tears, pain, love, bird-flights? I am all of them. I dance what I am. Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea? I dance what I am."[citation needed]

Duncan was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

In popular culture

Isadora Duncan's life has been portrayed most notably in the 1968 film, Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Vivian Pickles played her in Ken Russell's 1966 biopic for the BBC, which was subtitled 'The Biggest Dancer in the World' and introduced by Duncan's biographer, Sewell Stokes.

Most notably, Duncan was the subject of a ballet, Isadora, written and choreographed in 1981 by the Royal Ballet's Kenneth MacMillan, and performed at Covent Garden.[15] When She Danced, a stage play about Duncan's later years by Martin Sherman, won the 1991 Evening Standard Award (best actress) for Vanessa Redgrave. A Hungarian musical based on this play was produced in Budapest in 2008.

Robert Calvert recorded a song about Duncan on his Revenge LP. The song is called "Isadora". Salsa diva Celia Cruz sang a song titled "Isadora" in Duncan's honor. Finnish musician Juice Leskinen recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan". Russian singer Alexander Malinin recorded a song about the death of Isadora Duncan. Russian band Leningrad have a song about her on their Pulya (Bullet) album. American post-hardcore group Burden of a Day has a song titled, "Isadora Duncan" on their 2009 album OneOneThousand.

The children's gothic book series, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, includes a set of fraternal triplets named Isadora, Duncan, and Quigley Quagmire.

And Then There's Maude, the theme song to the 1970's American TV sitcom Maude contains a reference to Duncan with the line "Isadora was a bra burner."


  1. My Life by Isadora Duncan. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927. OCLC 738636
  2. The Art of the Dance by Isadora Duncan / pref. par Sheldon Cheney. New York: Theater Arts, 1928. 147 pages. Edited, with an introduction by Sheldon Cheney. ISBN 0-87830-005-8
  3. Isadora, an Intimate Portrait by Sewell Stokes. New York: Brentanno's Ltd, 1928.
  4. The Technique of Isadora Duncan by Irma Duncan. Illustrated. Photographs by Hans V. Briesex. Posed by Isadora, Irma and the Duncan pupils. Printed in Austria by Karl Piller, Wien VIII, 1937. ISBN 0-87127-028-5
  5. Life Into Art. Isadora Duncan and Her World. Edited by Doraee Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt. Foreword by Agnes de Mille. Text by Cynthia Splatt. Hardcover. 199 pages. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN 0-39303-507-7
  6. Duncan Dance: A Guide for Young People Ages Six to Sixteen by Julia Levien (with illustrations by the author from life and memory). “A Dance Horizons book”. 1994. ISBN 0-87127-198-2
  7. Anna Duncan: In the footsteps of Isadora (Ilsadoras fotspar) by Anna Duncan. Stockholm: Dansmuseet, 1995. ISBN 91-630-3782-3
  8. Isadora: A Sensational Life by Peter Kurth. Little Brown, 2001. ISBN 0316507261
  9. Maria Theresa: Divine Being, Guided by a Higher Order (The Adopted Daughter of Isadora Duncan) by Pamela De Fina. 2003. Pittsburgh: Dorrance. ISBN 0-8059-4960-7
  10. Isadora & Elizabeth Duncan in Germany; edited by Frank-Manuel Peter. Cologne: Wienand Verlag, 2000. ISBN 3-87909-645-7
  11. Isadora Duncan, in Narrate, uomini, la vostra storia by Alberto Savinio, Bompiani,1942, Adelphi, 1984.



  1. ^ Turner, Erin H. (1999). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable California Women. Globe Pequot. p. 79. ISBN 1560448598. 
  2. ^ a b Kurth, Peter (2001). Isadora, a Sensational Life. Little Brown. ISBN 0316507261. 
  3. ^ "Duse, Eleanora (1859-1924)". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2006-09-10. Retrieved 2007-07-02. 
  4. ^ Eileen A. Gavin, Mary Anne Siderits Women of vision: their psychology, circumstances, and success 2007
  5. ^ Hugo Vickers, Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta, Random House, 1994.
  6. ^ a b c The Old Dyke (2001-05-12). "Mercedes de Acosta and her Friends!". The Old Dyke: Omnibus Edition. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-07-02. 
  7. ^ Nancy Milford, "Zelda: A Biography", HarperCollins (1983), p 118.
  8. ^ "Self Portrait of Percy Grainger", ed. by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear, & Mark Carroll, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 116
  9. ^ [1][dead link]
  10. ^ "ISADORA DUNCAN, DRAGGED BY SCARF FROM AUTO, KILLED; Dancer Is Thrown to Road While Riding at Nice and Her Neck Is Broken" (Fee). The New York Times. 1927-09-15. Retrieved 2007-07-02. 
  11. ^ a b Biographical page at the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation
  12. ^ Nicola Kavanagh (May 2008). "Decline and Fall". Wound Magazine (London) (3): 113. ISSN 1755-800X. 
  13. ^ Meet the Isadora Duncan Dance Company page at the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation
  14. ^ About the Isadora Duncan Dance Company page at the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation
  15. ^ Isadora (1981 ballet): Barry Kay Archive website. Retrieved on April 6, 2008.

Further reading

External links

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