Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

Few heavy-set, middle-aged, promiscuous women were able to take center stage, even by today’s standards. Much less one who took a lover half her age, had two children out of wedlock and became known in many circles for her public drunkenness. But Isadora Duncan was different. An American dancer from San Francisco, California praised by many as the “mother of modern dance,” Duncan broke from the conventions of ballet and set the standard for future generations of modern and contemporary dance. Inspired by the sacred dances of ancient Greece, Duncan’s life and work remain inspirational to many dancers today. In this article, you’ll learn more about:

  • Isadora Duncan’s Biography
  • Isadora Duncan’s Death
  • Isadora Duncan’s Influence Today

Isadora Duncan’s Biography

Angela Isadora Duncan was born on May 26, 1877 in San Francisco, California, the youngest of four. Her parents divorced just three years later when her father had an affair. Duncan’s family was very poor. Isadora dropped out of school when she was 14 and taught dance classes with her sister to neighborhood kids to earn extra money. Faced with the reality of an impoverished future, Duncan and her mother set out to Chicago where she was discovered by theatrical producer Augustin Daly.

After a while, she became disengaged with New York and borrowed money to head to Europe, where she was embraced by high society and became a great success in just two years.

Not only was Duncan an unconventional dancer, but she also dismissed the traditional morals and social norms for women of her day. In 1922, she married Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. She had two children out of wedlock, unheard of for women of her status at the time (They drowned along with their nanny in 1913). Duncan was also a bisexual, which was common among Hollywood circles at that time, and exposed her breast on-stage during her last tour in the United States as a statement in alignment with Communism.

During her last years, Duncan was notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and often bouts of public drunkenness. To help her financial troubles, she traveled between Paris and the Mediterranean running up debts at hotels paid for by wealthy friends and supporters. Her last work was a published autobiography in 1927.

Isadora Duncan’s Death

Like the whirlwind that was most of her life, Duncan’s death was also just as abrupt and unexpected. On September 14, 1927, Duncan was riding in a car wearing a long silk scarf that fluttered out of the car. The scarf got caught in one of the spokes in the car and she was killed instantly.

Legend has it that Duncan’s last words were “Je vais à l’amour,” or “I am off to love.” She was leaving with a prospective lover at the time of her death.

Isadora Duncan’s Influence Today

Isadora Duncan

Duncan gained a wide following because of her rejection of classical ballet’s strict rules on steps, posture and formation, calling it “ugly and against nature.” She founded a “New System” of interpreted dance that was freer form that allowed dancers to go barefoot in flowing Greek dress and blended together poetry, music and nature. Duncan was inspired by Greek mythology, as shown in this…

…montage of performances by the Isadora Duncan Dance Company.

Duncan inspired other modern dances to develop their own styles. Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal Ballet in London, recalled seeing one of Duncan’s shows when he was just 17 years old. He told the Telegraph:

She had the most extraordinary quality of repose. She would stand for what seemed quite a long time doing nothing, and then make a very small gesture that seemed full of meaning.

Many admirers in the dance world overlooked her erratic behavior and embraced her as a great influence and symbol of female empowerment. In 1975, Ashton created a tribute entitled Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, part of which can be seen here:

Duncan’s life, career, death and legacy is not only captivating, but a vital piece of dance history that still lives on today.


2 Responses to “Isadora Duncan”

  1. 1 Laura Cramer
    October 14, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Isadora broke so many barriers for not only the dance world but women in general, where would we be today without her? Are there any good biographies to read some more on her

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