From the age of six, Isadora Duncan had an uncanny knack for improvised dance. Unflinching faith in the way her body moved (along with the support of her art patron parents) allowed her to develop a free-flowing, naturalistic style of dance that was at odds both with the strictures of ballet and the commercialism of dancehall performances. This self-confidence and fiery spirit flowed through all aspects of Duncan’s life: her romantic bonds with men and women, her brushes with the occult, her embrace of Communism, and even her dramatic death.
Born in San Francisco in 1877, Isadora Duncan left traditional schooling behind as a teenager to teach dance in her mother’s music studio. This appears to have been equally a matter of necessity as one of desire: Isadora’s father had lost his bank and the family was forced to turn to other means of keeping a roof over their heads. Isadora was not trained in ballet, but instead choreographed routines via improvisation, relying on her natural sense of balance and movement to create highly emotional compositions.
Although Isadora found full-time employment as a dancer with an American company, there was little room for her free form approach to choreography. At the age of 22, she moved to London and found that her avant-garde approach became the rage of the socially connected set. In between performances in the salons of wealthy sophisticates, Isadora immersed herself in the ancient art displayed at the British Museum. She found inspiration in the images of ritualized dance portrayed in classical Greek art, incorporating flowing togas into her already barefoot and expressive dances. Using her London fame as a launchpad, Isadora’s career would flower in Europe. She toured the continent and established dance schools that attracted a group of young woman protégés known as the Isadorables. Women found Isadora’s dance style to be especially appealing, since it relied on a sort of feminine intuition that embraced athleticism while never veering into the rigidity of ballet or the bawdiness of vaudeville.
Divorcing dance from commerce became a mission for Isadora. Her dances were rituals: invocations of natural forces, celebrations of emotion, and overall a display of the beauty of the human form. Her work blended the physical robustness of the New Woman with the mystical notion of the feminine as a conduit for spiritual forces. So strong was Isadora’s leftist stance that she became a citizen of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, attracted by the idealized promise of a society that wove equality into its politics, science, and arts. Unfortunately, the Soviet government’s support of her dance school was rather less robust than she’d expected, putting the dancer in the uncomfortable position of resuming touring in Western Europe and America at the dawn of the “Red Scare.”
Isadora’s radical beliefs extended through every facet of her life. Though she was fascinated by spirituality and ancient religions, she was an avowed atheist. Her art focused on the improvement of life on the material plane, rather than in some abstract concept of the next life. Her expressive movements even captivated Aleister Crowley, who incorporated a character based on Duncan into his novel Moonchild and rhapsodized over her ability to convey “magical unconsciousness” through her dances. Isadora Duncan’s love life befitted her status as an iconoclast, and she ricocheted between romances with men and women. She lived according to her desires, and her tempestuous affairs were marked equally by hedonism and heartbreak. Rather than attempt to downplay her emotional turmoil, she used her personal life as inspiration for some of her most moving dances. An especially tragic turning point in Isadora’s life came when her two out-of-wedlock children drowned when the car in which they were riding rolled into the Seine. Coping with the rawness of her sorrow, the dancer channeled her grief into a piece set to Chopin’s “Marche Funebre.” In a significantly earthier move towards healing, the dancer also sought out the sexual services of Italian sculptor Romano Romanelli in a quest to bear another child. A repeated theme in Isadora’s life was her taste for younger men. When she finally succumbed to the institution of marriage, it was to wed the leading Russian poet, Sergei Yesenin. She was 45; he, 27. Described by detractors variously as “overweight,” “drunk,” and “blowsy” as she approached middle age, the dancer nonetheless maintained the uncanny charisma that found her immortalized in art by Auguste Rodin, in poetry by Max Eastman, and in photos by leading studios of the time.
The circumstances of Isadora’s death are as startling as the events of her life. Shortly after bidding farewell to her friends with the words “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”), Isadora was strangled to death when the flowing scarf she wore became tangled in the wheels of her car. Gertrude Stein famously remarked in the wake of the tragedy: “affectations can be dangerous.”
Indeed the entire life of Isadora Duncan was one lived dangerously: eschewing traditional morals, doggedly pursuing a new art aesthetic, and championing social causes at the risk of her own career. The strength of her vision was such that, while she led a controversial life and is certainly still known as a flamboyant personality, it is her legacy as the Mother of Modern Dance that rises above all.