Isadora Duncan
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Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 – September 14, 1927) was an American dancer. She was born Angela Isadora Duncan in San Francisco, California. Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the mother of modern dance. Although popular in the United States only in New York later in her life, she entertained throughout Europe.


1 Early life
2 Career
3 Personal life
4 Later life
5 Death
6 Representations
6.1 Film
6.2 Music
6.3 Literature
7 External links
8 References

Early life

Duncan was 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), youngest daughter of Thomas Gray, a California senator, and his wife, Mary Gorman. The other children were Elizabeth, Augustin, and Raymond. Her father was the son of Joseph Moulder Duncan and Harriett Bioren. Soon after Isadora's birth, Joseph Duncan lost the bank and was publicly disgraced. Her parents were divorced by 1880 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and Dora moved with her family to Oakland where she worked 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 was very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children to earn extra money.

In 1895, she became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York, but soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899, she decided to move to Europe, first to London and, 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.

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, she 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. Barefoot, dressed in clinging scarves and faux-Grecian tunics, she created a primitivist style of improvisational dance to counter the rigid styles of the time. She was inspired by the classics, especially Greek myth. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation, emotion, and the human form. Isadora believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature" and gained a wide following that allowed her to set up a school to teach. She became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs, watercolors, prints, and paintings. When the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was built in 1913, her likeness was carved in its bas-relief over the entrance by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and in painted murals of the nine muses by Maurice Denis in the auditorium.

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

In 1922, she acted on her sympathy for the social and political experiment being carried out 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 inculcating her philosophy into groups of young girls (a brief effort to include boys was unsuccessful). The first, in Grunewald, Germany, gave rise to her most celebrated group of pupils, dubbed "the Isadorables," who took her surname and subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently. The second had a short-lived existence prior to World War I at a chateau outside Paris, while the third was part of Duncan's tumultuous experiences 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, and one, Lisa Duncan, was permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs. The most notable of the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Duncan's departure and ran the school there, again angering Duncan by allowing students to perform too publicly and too commercially.

Personal life
Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin

Both in her professional and her private lives, she flouted traditional mores and morality. In 1922, she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe, but his frequent drunken rages, resulting in the repeated destruction of furniture and the smashing of the doors and windows of their hotel rooms, brought a great deal of negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow where he soon suffered a mental breakdown and was placed in a mental institution. Released from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925, at the age of thirty.
Gordon Craig

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)[1], by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Her private life was subject to considerable scandal, especially following the drowning of Deirdre and Patrick in an accident on the Seine River on April 19, 1913. The children were in the car with their nurse, returning home after lunch in the city with Isadora and Paris Singer. The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision. He got out to hand-crank the engine, but he had forgotten to set the emergency brake, so once he got the car to start, it went across the Boulevard Bourdon and rolled down the embankment into the river below. The children and the nanny drowned[1].
Eleonora Duse

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 lesbian relationship with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship. However, there has never been definite proof that the two were involved romantically.[2] In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did indeed become pregnant right after her children's deaths. She gave birth to a son who lived only a few hours, and was never named.
Mercedes de Acosta

In her last United States tour in 1922-23, she waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!". She was bisexual, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She had a lengthy and passionate affair with poet Mercedes de Acosta, and was possibly involved with writer Natalie Barney[citation needed].

Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of correspondence. In one, written in 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...."[3] 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.[3] De Acosta had once proclaimed that from the moment she first saw Isadora Duncan, she looked upon her as a great genius, taken by her completely.[3]

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 or spending short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by an ever-decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography, in the hope that it would be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald recalled how she and Scott sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. F. Scott Fitzgerald 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 (shaped like miniature taxicabs) from the table.

In the book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait, the author, Sewell Stokes, who met her in the last years of her life when she was penniless and alone, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan's autobiography My Life was published in 1927. Composer Percy Grainger called Isadora’s autobiography a “life-enriching masterpiece.” [4]

Tomb of Isadora Duncan at Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves which trailed behind her was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France, on the night of September 14, 1927, at the age of 50. The scarf was hand-painted silk from the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous."

Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar[5] automobile of a handsome French-Italian mechanic, Benoit Falchetto, whom she had nicknamed "Buggatti" (sic). Before getting into the car, she said to a friend, Mary Desti (mother of 1940s Hollywood writer-director Preston Sturges), and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais a la gloire!" ("Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!"). However, according to the diaries of the American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan's body in the morgue (his diaries are in the Beinecke Library at Yale University), Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan's last words. Instead, she told Wescott, the dancer actually said, "Je vais a l'amour" ("I am off to love"), which Desti considered too embarrassing to go down in history as the legend's final utterance, especially as it suggested that Duncan hoped that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual assignation.

Whatever her actual last words, when Falchetto drove off, Duncan's immense handpainted silk scarf—a gift from Desti that was large enough to wrap around her body and neck and flutter out of the car, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. As The New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on September 15, 1927, "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."[6] Other sources describe her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck.[7]

Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her beloved children[8] in the columbarium at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

At her death she was a Soviet citizen, and her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the USA.



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

Other film characters have referred to Duncan as an inspiration. As a sub-plot in the movie Four Friends (1981), main character Georgia Jodie Thelin keeps referring to Isadora Duncan as being her kindred spirit, even believing at one point in the story that she is her reincarnation. In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, an Isadora Duncan character makes a cameo during the "Paris Hold the Key to her Heart" number, singing the line "Come dance through the night!" with a long scarf dangling behind her.

Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) mentions worshipping "Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan," in her "Church of Baseball" opening monologue to the movie "Bull Durham". Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) mentions reading "My Life" by Isadora Duncan in the movie Serpico. In the animated Disney cartoon The Weekenders, Tish goes into a discount costume shop looking for a Duncan costume. However, all the costume shop has is legionnaire breastplates and feather boas. Finally, in a deleted scene from the blockbuster movie Titanic, Rose speaks to Jack about the possibility of becoming a dancer "like Isadora Duncan".

The romantic comedy film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days features a diamond necklace named after Isadora Duncan.


Most notably, Duncan was the subject of a ballet, Isadora, written and choreographed by the Royal Ballet's Kenneth MacMillan, and performed at Covent Garden for the first time in 1981.[9] When She Danced, a stage play about Duncan's later years by Martin Sherman also won the 1991 Evening Standard Award (best actress) for Vanessa Redgrave. Based on this play a Hungarian musical was later produced in Budapest in 2008.

Elsewhere, Duncan is featured in the opening theme song to the popular 1970s show Maude. "Isadora was the first bra burner, ain't you glad she showed up." Robert Calvert recorded a song about Duncan on his Revenge EP. The song is called Isadora and mentions dancing schools and fast cars. Salsa diva Celia Cruz also sang a song in Duncan's honor, titled "Isadora".

Duncan is the "poor dancing girl" alluded to in The Libertines' song "Radio America". John Lennon sang "Isadora Duncan, worked for TeleFunken" in an outtake on Let It Be. Finnish musician Juice Leskinen recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan" for a single, remembering the innovations that her dancing style created and her death. The Magnetic Fields sang "Like Isadora Duncan II, in impossibly long white scarves" in their song Jeremy, from the album The Wayward Bus. Vic Chesnutt recorded a song called "Isadora Duncan" on his first album, Little. Talking Heads sang "Je me lance vers la gloire", her (supposed) last words, in their song "Psycho Killer". Elliott Murphy wrote a song called "Isadora's Dancers" on his 1976 album Night Lights. 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. Finally, the Constantines sang "Collect the body of Isadora Duncan" in their song The Long Distance Four, from the album Constantines.

Pete Doherty's solo song "Salome" contains the lyric, "as she dances and demands the head of Isadora Duncan on a plate".

"Isadora Duncan" is a song by Post-Hardcore band Burden of a Day. It is track 7 on the Burden of a Day album OneOneThousand. The song quotes "lead me with your little strong hands" from Isadora's letter to De Acosta.

Duncan is referenced in the Constantines song, "Long Distance Four".

Isadora Duncan is referenced in the 1926 modernist Scots poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid: "Whaur's Isadora Duncan dancin noo?/ Is Mary Garden in Chicago still/ And Duncan Grant in Paris - and me fou?" (ll.30-2)
John Dos Passos devotes a section of his panoramic 1936 novel The Big Money to Duncan, called "Art and Isadora".
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books contained the Quagmire triplets named Isadora, Duncan, and Quigley. Isadora and Duncan are quite unlucky, which is a reference to Isadora Duncan's ill-fated life.
In Mikhail Bulgakov's story Heart of a Dog professor Preobrazhensky compares his life with Duncan's life in Moscow.
Isadora Duncan is referenced in the poem Fever 103 by Sylvia Plath: "love, love the low smoke rolls from me like Isadora's scarves, I'm in a fright/ one scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel".
Passage by Connie Willis uses Isadora's last words as the chapter 15. Note that "glory" rather than "love" version of her last words is used.
In Pete Doherty's solo album Grace/Wastelands, the song "Salome" references Duncan.

External links Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Isadora Duncan

[1] Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing, San Francisco
[2] Isadora Duncan Heritage Society Japan
Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, Inc., directed by Lori Belilove
Isadora Duncan's Web Links
Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc.
Modern Duncan biographer, Peter Kurth's Isadora Duncan page
Picture of Duncan
Picture of Duncan
Isadora Duncan Archiv, a German web site.
Place where she lived during her childhood (map)
^ a b Kurth, Peter (2001). Isadora, a Sensational Life. Little Brown. ISBN 0316507261.
^ "Duse, Eleanora (1859-1924)". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2006-09-10. Retrieved 2007-07-02.
^ a b c The Old Dyke (2001-05-12). "Mercedes de Acosta and her Friends!". The Old Dyke: Omnibus Edition. Retrieved 2007-07-02.
^ "Self Portrait of Percy Grainger", ed. by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear, & Mark Carroll, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 116.
^ http://www.historicracing.com/top100.cfm?driverID=2892&today=on&fromrow=1
^ "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.
^ Biographical page at the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation
^ Nicola Kavanagh (May 2008). "Decline and Fall". Wound Magazine (London) (3): 113. ISSN 1755-800X.
^ Isadora (1981 ballet): Barry Kay Archive website. Retrieved on April 6, 2008.
Duncan, Isadora (1927). My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright. OCLC 738636.
Donoghue, Emma. "What the Driver Saw". Retrieved 2007-07-02.
"Atlas F1 historical research forum about the Amilcar debate". 2002-07-21. Retrieved 2007-07-02. Dance portal

Categories: 1877 births | 1927 deaths | American dancers | Bisexual dancers | American autobiographers | Burials at Pere Lachaise Cemetery | French Americans | Immigrants to France | LGBT people from France | LGBT people from the United States | Modern dance | Modern dancers | National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame inductees | Road accident deaths in France | Western writers about Soviet Russia

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