Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan
Born Angela Isadora Duncan
(1877-05-26)May 26, 1877 or (1878-05-27)May 27, 1878[1]
San Francisco, California, United States
Died September 14, 1927(1927-09-14) (aged 49 or 50)[1]
Nice, France
Nationality American, Russian
Known for Dance and choreography
Movement Modern/contemporary dance

Angela Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 or May 27, 1878[1] September 14, 1927) was an American dancer who performed to acclaim throughout Europe. Born in California, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 49 or 50, when her scarf became entangled in the wheels and axle of the car in which she was riding.[2]

In 1987, she was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

Early life

Duncan was born in San Francisco, the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922). Her brothers were Augustin Duncan and Raymond Duncan;[3] her sister, Elizabeth Duncan, was also a dancer.[4] Soon after Isadora's birth, her father was exposed in illegal bank dealings, and the family became extremely poor.[3]

Her parents divorced when she was an infant,[5] and her mother moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a seamstress and piano teacher. From ages six to ten Duncan attended school but, finding it constricting she dropped out. As her family was very poor, she and her three siblings earned money by teaching dance to local children.[3]

In 1896 Duncan became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York, but she soon became disillusioned with the form. Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in 1898 when the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan hit some rocks off the coast of Cornwall.[6]


Photo by Arnold Genthe of Duncan performing barefoot during her 191518 American tour

Duncan began her dancing career at a very early age by giving lessons in her home to other neighborhood children, and this continued through her teenage years.[7] Her novel approach to dance is evident in these early classes, in which she "followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head".[8] A desire to travel brought her to Chicago where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly's company. This took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance clashed with the popular pantomimes of theater companies.[9]

Feeling unhappy and unappreciated in America, Duncan moved to London in 1898. There she performed in the drawing rooms of the wealthy, drawing inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum.[10] The earnings from these engagements enabled her to rent a studio where developed her work and created larger performances for the stage.[11] From London she traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre and the Exposition Universelle of 1900.[12]

In 1902, Loie Fuller invited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe as she created new works using her innovative technique,[13] which emphasized natural movement over the rigid technique of ballet.[14] She spent most of the rest of her life touring Europe and the Americas in this fashion.[15] Despite the critics' mixed reactions, she became quite popular for her distinct style and inspired many visual artists, such as Antoine Bourdelle, Auguste Rodin, Arnold Ronnebeck, and Abraham Walkowitz, to create works based on her.[16]

Duncan disliked the commercial aspects of public performance like touring and contracts because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. To achieve her mission, she opened schools to teach young women her dance philosophy. The first was established in 1904 in Berlin-Grunewald, Germany. This institution was the birthplace of the "Isadorables" – Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Liesel, Gretel, and Erika.[17] – Duncan's protégées, who would go on to continue her legacy.[18] Duncan legally adopted all six Isadorables in 1919, and they took the Duncan last name.[19] Later, Duncan established a school in Paris that was shortly closed due to the outbreak of World War I.[20]

Abraham Walkowitz's Isadora Duncan #29

In 1910, Duncan met the occultist Aleister Crowley at a party (an episode recounted by Crowley in his Confessions abridged ed, p. 676) where he refers to Duncan under the name 'Lavinia King'; he would use the same invented name for her in his novel Moonchild. Crowley wrote of Duncan: "Isadora Duncan has this gift of gesture in a very high degree. Let the reader study her dancing, if possible in private than in public, and learn the superb 'unconsciousness'- which is magical consciousness - with which she suits the action to the melody."[21] Crowley was in fact more attracted to Duncan's bohemian companion Mary Dempsey/Mary D'Este or Desti (with whom Crowley had an affair). Desti had come to Paris in 1901 where she soon met Duncan; the two became inseparable friends. Desti also appeared in Moonchild, as 'Lisa la Giuffria'. She joined Crowley's occult order, helping him to write his magnum opus Magick: Book 4 under her magical name of 'Soror Virakam'; she also co-edited four numbers of Crowley's journal The Equinox and contributed several collaborative plays to the journal. Mary Desti wrote a memoir of her experiences with Duncan that includes some autobiographical material - The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan 1921-1927 (1929).

In 1911 the French fashion designer Paul Poiret rented a mansion called Pavillon du Butard in La Celle-Saint-Cloud and threw lavish parties, including one of the more famous grandes fêtes on 20 June 1912, La fête de Bacchus (re-creating the Bacchanalia hosted by Louis XIV at Versailles). Isadora Duncan, wearing a Greek evening gown designed by Poiret,[22] danced on tables among 300 guests and 900 bottles of champagne were consumed until the first light of day.[22]

Duncan, said to have posed for the photographer Eadweard Muybridge,[23] placed an emphasis on "evolutionary" dance motion, insisting that each movement was born from the one that preceded it, that each movement gave rise to the next, and so on in organic succession. Her dancing defined the force of progress, change, abstraction and liberation. In France, as elsewhere, Duncan delighted her audience.[24]

In 1914, Duncan moved to the United States and transferred the school there. A townhouse on Gramercy Park was provided for its use, and its studio was nearby, on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue, which is now Park Avenue South.[25] Otto Kahn, the head of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. gave Duncan use of the very modern Century Theatre at West 60th Street and Central Park West for her performances and productions, which included a staging of Oedipus Rex, which involved almost all of Duncan's extended entourage and friends.[26] During her time in New York Duncan posed for a number of studies by the photographer Arnold Genthe.

Duncan had been due to leave the US in 1915 on board the RMS Lusitania on the voyage on which it sank, but historians believe her financial situation at the time drove her to choose a more modest crossing.[27] In 1921, her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government's failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to move West and leave the school to Irma.[28]

Philosophy and technique

Isadora Duncan in a Greek-inspired pose and wearing her signature Greek tunic

Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art.[29] She developed within this notion 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.

Duncan's philosophy of dance moved away from rigid ballet technique and towards what she perceived as natural movement. To restore dance to a high art form instead of entertainment, she sought the connection between emotions and movement: "I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement."[30] She believed dance was meant to encircle all that life had to offer, joy and sadness. Duncan took inspiration from ancient Greece and combined it with an American love of freedom. Her movement was feminine and came from within the deepest feelings of her body. This is exemplified in her revolutionary costume of a white Greek tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Greek forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement corseted ballet costumes and pointe shoes did not.[31] Costumes were not the only inspiration Duncan took from Greece. She was very inspired by ancient Greek art and utilized some of those forms in her movement (see image).[32]

Duncan wrote of American dancing: "let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance."[33] Her focus on natural movement emphasized steps, such as skipping, outside of codified ballet technique. Duncan also cited the sea as an early inspiration for her movement.[34] Also, she believed movement originated from the solar plexus, which she thought was the source of all movement.[30] It is this philosophy and new dance technique that garnered Duncan the title of the creator of modern dance.

Personal life

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual,[35] and 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!"[36] She was an atheist.[37]

Isadora Duncan with her children Deirdre and Patrick, 1913.

Duncan bore two children both out of wedlock – the first, Deirdre Beatrice (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick Augustus (born May 1, 1910),[38] by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children drowned while away from their mother in the care of their nanny in 1913 when their runaway car went into the Seine.[38]

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 had just left a relationship with the rebellious and epicene young feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship, but there has never been an indication the two were involved romantically.[39]

Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin.

In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger – the sculptor Romano Romanelli[40] – to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did become pregnant after the deaths of her elder two children and gave birth on August 13, 1914 to a son who died shortly after birth.[41][42]

In 1921, after the close of the Russian Revolution, Duncan moved to Moscow where she met the acclaimed poet Sergei Esenin, who was 18 years her junior. On 2 May 1922 they married and Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. However, the marriage was brief, and in May 1923 he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. Two years later, on 28 December 1925 Yesenin was found dead in his room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg in an apparent suicide.

Duncan had a relationship with poet and playwright Mercedes de Acosta which is documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other.[43] In one 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."[44]

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 successful enough to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald wrote how she and F. Scott Fitzgerald, 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.[45]

In his 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."[46]


Tomb of Isadora Duncan at Père Lachaise Cemetery

On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked her to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but she would only agree to wear the scarf.[47] As they departed, she reportedly said to Desti and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" ("Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!"); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan's actual last words were, "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.[48][49][50]

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck.[2] Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the scarf almost immediately after the car left. Desti brought Duncan to the hospital, where she was declared dead.[47]

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, 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."[51] 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. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous".[52] At her death, Duncan was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the U.S.[53]

Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her children[54] in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The headstone of her grave contains the inscription École du Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris ("Ballet School of the Opera of Paris").


While "The Mother of Dance's" schools in Europe did not last long, Isadora Duncan's work had impact in the art and her style is still danced based upon the instruction of Maria-Theresa Duncan, Anna Duncan, and Irma Duncan, three of her six adopted daughters. Through her sister, Elizabeth, Duncan's approach was adopted by Jarmila Jeřábková from Prague where her legacy persists.[55] By 1913 she was already being celebrated. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built, Duncan's 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 1987, she was inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.

Anna, Lisa, Theresa and Irma, pupils of Isadora Duncan's first school, carried on the aesthetic and pedagogical principles of Isadora's work in New York and Paris. Choreographer and dancer Julia Levien was also instrumental in furthering Duncan's work through the formation of the Duncan Dance Guild in the 1950s and the establishment of the Duncan Centenary Company in 1977.[56]

Another means by which Duncan's dance techniques were carried forth was in the formation of the Isadora Duncan Heritage Society, by Mignon Garland, who had been taught dance by two of Duncan's key students. Garland was such a fan that she later lived in a building erected at the same site and address as Duncan, attached a commemorative plaque near the entrance, which is still there as of 2016. Garland also succeeded in having San Francisco rename an alley on the same block from Adelaide Place to Isadora Duncan Lane.[57][58]

In medicine, the Isadora Duncan Syndrome refers to injury or death consequent to entanglement of neckwear with a wheel or other machinery.[59]

In the arts, literature and popular culture

See also



  1. 1 2 3 While her birth date is widely given as May 27, 1878, her posthumously-discovered baptismal certificate records May 26, 1877. Any corroborating documents were destroyed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. See Stokes, Sewell. "Isadora Duncan". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  2. 1 2 Craine, Debra and Mackrell, Judith. The Oxford dictionary of dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000. p. 152 ISBN 0-19-860106-9
  3. 1 2 3 Deborah Jowitt (1989). Time and the Dancing Image. University of California Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-520-06627-4.
  4. Lilian Karina; Marion Kant (January 2004). Hitler's Dancers: German Modern Dance and the Third Reich. Berghahn Books. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-57181-688-7.
  5. Duncan (1927), p. 17
  6. Ean Wood, Headlong Through Life: The Story of Isadora Duncan (2006), p. 27: "They...would all be drowned, along with 104 others, when the S.S. Mohegan, en route from London to New York, ran aground on the Manacle Rocks off Falmouth, in Cornwall."
  7. O'Connor, B. (1994). Barefoot Dancer: The Story of Isadora Duncan. Carolrhoda Books. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-87614-807-5. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
  8. Duncan (1927), p. 21
  9. Duncan (1927), p. 31
  10. Duncan (1927), p. 55
  11. Duncan (1927), p. 58
  12. Duncan (1927), p. 69
  13. Duncan (1927), p. 94
  14. Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. p. 71
  15. Kurth (2001), p. 155
  16. Setzer, Dawn. "UCLA Library Acquires Isadora Duncan Collection", UCLA Newsroom, last modified April 21, 2006
  17. Sturges (1990), p. 39
  18. Kurth (2001), p. 168
  19. Kassing, G. (2007). History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach. Human Kinetics. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-7360-6035-6.
  20. Duncan (1927), p. 311
  21. Aleister Crowley, "Magick: Liber ABA: Book 4: Parts 1-4" 2nd revised ed. York Beach, ME, 1997, p. 197
  22. 1 2 Rachel Aydt, Rediscovered, Life in Paris during the Belle Epoque... Time Magazine, 2007
  23. Dancer Isadora Duncan, Photo by Eadweard Muybridge, Getty Images
  24. Ann Daly, Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, Weslyan University Press, Middletown CT. 1995, ISBN 0-8195-6560-1
  25. Sturges (1990), p. 120
  26. Sturges (1990), pp. 121–124
  27. Greg Daugherty (2 May 2013). "8 Famous People Who Missed the Lusitania". Smithsonian Magazine.
  28. Duncan (1927), p. 422
  29. Stewart J, Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance, 2000. p. 122.
  30. 1 2 Duncan (1927), p. 75
  31. Kurth (2001), p. 57
  32. Duncan (1927), p. 45
  33. Duncan (1927), p. 343
  34. Duncan (1927), p. 10
  35. Stern, Keith. Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders BenBella Books, 2009. ISBN 9781935251835. p. 148
  36. Turner, Erin H. (1999). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable California Women. Globe Pequot. p. 79. ISBN 1-56044-859-8.
  37. Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. New York: Morrow, 1977. Print.
  38. 1 2 Kurth (2001)
  39. "Duse, Eleanora (1859–1924)". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2006-09-10. Retrieved 2007-07-02.
  40. Gavin, Eileen A. and Siderits, Mary Anne. Women of vision: their psychology, circumstances, and success. 2007
  41. ISADORA DUNCAN AND PARIS SINGER in: [retrieved 29 May 2015].
  42. Isadora Duncan: a taste for life in: [retrieved 29 May 2015].
  43. Hugo Vickers, Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta, Random House, 1994.
  44. Schanke (2006)
  45. Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography, New York: HarperCollins, 1983. p. 118
  46. Gillies, Malcolm; Pear, David and Carroll, Mark. (eds.) Self Portrait of Percy Grainger. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 116
  47. 1 2 Sturges (1990), pp. 227–230
  48. "DEATH By Flowing Scarf – Isadora Duncan, USA". True Stories of Strange Deaths. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
  49. "Isadora Duncan Meets Fate". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
  50. "Isadora Duncan killed in Paris under wheels of car she was buying". Sandusky Star Journal. September 15, 1927. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
  51. "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.
  52. "Affectations Can Be Dangeous" on the Three Hundred Words website
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  55. Kateřina Boková. "100-year birth anniversary of Jarmila Jeřábková - dancer, choreographer and teacher". Czech Dance Info. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
  56. Jennifer Dunning (September 9, 2006). "Julia Levien, 94, Authority on the Dances of Isadora Duncan, Dies". The New York Times.
  57. Kisselgoff, Anna (September 24, 1999). "Mignon Garland Dies at 91; Disciple of Isadora Duncan". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
  58. "Journal of proceedings, Board of Supervisors, City and County of San Francisco". The Wayback Machine. Board of Supervisors, City and County of San Francisco. January 25, 1988. p. 89. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
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