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Yagishita, Emi


Isadora Duncan`s Adopted Daughters,

the [Isadorables]: Their Activities and Characteristics


Emi Yagishita

Waseda University/ The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science




In the history of dance, Isadora Duncan`s name is very well known, while those of her adopted daughters, Anna, Irma, Theresa, Lisa, Margot, and Erika are surprisingly less known, although they have had a significant impact on the history of dance. The name [Isadorables,] as Isadora`s daughters came to be called, was coined by the French critic Fernand Divoire in 1909; they played a key role in continuing the Duncan method which was first initiated by Isadora.


This paper focuses on their activities and characteristics after they separated from Isadora, some as late as 1921. The activities of each of her daughters are discussed, particularly their own dance schools and performances, on the basis of unpublished materials, which include photos, brochures, and newspaper and magazine articles from the United States and Europe, as well as interviews with dancers who studied with the Isadorables.


The present study determines the Isadorables as the heirs of Duncan Dance and describes each of their activities and characteristics. Through the years the Duncan Dance spread all over the world, and in particular Anna, Irma and Theresa taught dance in the United States and Lisa taught in France.




All of the Isadorables entered Isadora`s first school in Grunewald, Germany in 1905, which shut down in 1908. Even after this school closed, they all stayed together more than ten years. A critical event occurred in 1921, when Isadora decided to go to Russia to create another school there. At this point, the Isadorables broke up and each started to develop their individual path. Margot died prematurely at age 25 in 1925 of pneumonia and Erika decided to give up her dance career to became a painter. Before the trip to Russia, Anna had a disagreement with Isadora when they were in Greece, because she fell in love with Isadora`s pianist and lover, Walter Rummel. Lisa had a boyfriend and Theresa was going to get married, so, both of them were unable to go to Russia with Isadora, thus only Irma followed. After they separated from Isadora, they all created their own careers as dancers or, in some cases, other fields. In this paper, I write briefly about Duncan Dance`s heirs, Theresa, Anna, Lisa and Irma, and discuss their careers and activities in depth, particularly their dance schools and performances.


There has been little previous deep study on the Isadorables. In fact, there is nothing except one book by Lilian Lowenthal in 1993. This paper, attempts to fill in the gap in the literature by using unpublished materials that Lowenthal did not reference in her book, including photos, brochures, newspapers and magazine articles from the United States and Europe, as well as interviews with some of the Isadorables` students.


1. THERESA DUNCAN (1895 Dresden - 1987 New York)


When Theresa was 9 or 10, she danced at the Royal Central Theater in Dresden. Isadora saw her perform and invited her to study at her school in Germany. However, when Isadora announced that she intended to go to Russia in 1921, Theresa chose to follow her own career in the United States, especially in New York. First she did a solo performance in New York City in 1922.1 After she married art historian Stephan Bourgeois, and then founded her own school called [School of The Classical Dance]2 in New York City in the 1930`s, she created her own dance group, [Helliconiades.]3 However, her dance school and group did not continue for very long. Probably due to her growing family, Theresa cut her dance activities short, and focused on her two sons. However, in 1934 she was invited to dance at the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President.4 She was the only Duncan Dancer who danced there, and it must have been a great honor. In the 1940`s she performed again with the Helliconiades, and in 1954 held twelve different performances under the name of [A Classical Festival.] I had a chance to see the associated brochures, thanks to Pamela De Fina; these brochures present Theresa dancing to the music of great composers such as Debussy, Handel, and Scarlatti √ all composers that Isadora never used at her own performances. Theresa was expanding the Duncan repertoire in terms of music.


In her later years, Theresa cultivated a relationship with Isadora`s niece, Ligoa Duncan and performed several times at [Ligoa Duncan Art Center] on New York`s East Side.5 After that, she established a new institute, [Isadora Duncan International Institute,] with her student, Kay Bardsley, in Mount Kisco, New York and created a performance group, [The Maria Theresa Heritage Group], with which she performed. In 1982, being the only remaining Isadorable alive, Theresa, aged 87, did a solo dance performance to Tchaikovski`s Sixth Symphony. The next year she danced in New York in her last performance, and passed away at age 92 a few years later.6


2. ANNA DUNCAN (1894 Moudon, Switzerland - 1980 New York)


Anna`s father saw an article about the Isadora Duncan School in Grunewald in the newspaper, and took Anna to the school. Then, Anna entered Isadora`s school on January 19th, 1905. In 1920, she had a love affair with pianist, Walter Rummel; Isadora`s disapproval caused an estrangement with her. After Anna broke up with Rummel, she went to the U.S.A. and performed with fellow Isadorables Lisa and Margot as the Isadora Duncan Dancers.


On May 2nd, 1926, having begun her career as a dance teacher, she had her first solo performance at the Guild Theater7 in New York City. In 1928 August 8th and 9th, she danced with [The Anna Duncan Dancers]8 at Lewishon Stadium;9 the performance featured the music of Schubert. From 1928 to 1931 Anna performed annually at Lewishon Stadium. However, after 1929, Anna`s students` names can no longer be seen in the program of Lewishon Stadium. There is a possibility that she performed without them. In 1929, on January 15th, she danced with a 42-member orchestra, performing the music of Gluck, Schubert and Chopin. Ligoa`s son, Michel, showed me one program from Jacob`s Pillow in the 1940`s; according to the program, Anna performed on the stage where Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn danced. Anna had shared the stage with them before at Lewishon Stadium. After 1942, Anna`s performances were few, however at age 71, in 1965, she danced The Virgin Name is Mary as her last performance. Anna was also involved with theatre and film. For example, in 1927 she was given the part of Salome in Phillip Barry`s play, John; and in 1933, she played the maid in George Cukor`s film, Dinner at Eight.


According to interviews with Gemze De Lappe,10 who was a student of Anna, her school in New York was in Carnegie Hall. However, she also taught at Tamara Daykarhanova`s acting school. Anna became blind in her later years, but she started to write her own autobiography. The text was never finished, and she died at age 85, on March 6th 1980.


3. LISA DUNCAN (1898 Dresden - 1976 Dresden)


Her real name was Elizabeth Milker. She entered Isadora`s school at age 6 or 7. She also did not accompany her to Russia in 1921, but chose to join tours in the U.S.A. with Anna and Margot for several months.11 After the U.S.A. tours, she returned to Paris and opened her own school. At first the school was located at The Thtre des Champs-lyses, then on Versailles Avenue. Later, her school was on Sablon Street; investigations reveal that, according to a pamphlet, her location was later on Pelouze Street.12 Very little can be learned about her teaching style from pamphlets. However, Fernand Divoire discussed the differences between Lisa`s school and Isadora`s: according to his view,13 Isadora`s goal for her dance school was [Life and Beauty], while Lisa simply wanted to create a school for dance. She taught her students how to walk, how to run, and how to jump technically. Divoire states that Lisa`s approach to dance was a fusion of Isadora`s dance and her own, and that Lisa had created a wonderful new form of dance.14


About Lisa`s choreography: she created Orpheus, performed at the Opra Comique in Paris. A new version of Orpheus, her dance presented a scene of the [Furies] that stood out in that she used masks created by Andre Barsacq. This was a significant change for Duncan Dance in that Isadora had never used masks. Unfortunately, there is no film record of this dance, so I cannot comment on this performance in any more depth. In 1937 Lisa became a French citizen. When she became ill in later life, she returned to Germany, spending her last years in Dresden and passing away in 1976.


The famous French choreographer, Maurice Bejart, at age 20, took classes in her school in Paris. In prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya`s DVD documentary,15 he says, [Isadora was a character who fascinated me, because it was she who invented modern dance. Without Isadora, 20th Century ballet would not have existed.] In this documentary, Bejart demonstrates Lisa`s approach to Duncan Dance. Thus, we are fortunate to know how Bejart was inspired by Lisa Duncan and how she contributed to the next generation`s new dance.


4. IRMA DUNCAN (1897 Hamburg - 1977 California)


Irma entered Isadora`s school on February 1st 1905. As noted above, only Irma accompanied Isadora to Russia in 1921. Together, they opened the Isadora Duncan School, at Prechistenka 20 in Moscow. In 1924, Isadora left Russia for reasons which might have been both political and financial.16 However, Irma remained in the Moscow School where she taught the students.


In 1926, Irma and her students toured China; the tour was covered by the press. According to Harbin Observer,17 the group had planned to extend the tour to Japan, but these plans were cancelled due to the death of the Emperor Taisho. Irma had wanted very much to tour Japan. After Isadora`s tragic death in 1927, Irma and her selected students toured the U.S.A. in 1928 and 1929; both tours were a great success and were well covered by the press.18


In 1939, Irma had disputes with her impresario Sol Hurok.19 The U.S.A. tours came to an end. The Soviet government demanded that the Russian students return home. The American government had made clear their differences with the Soviet regime and, in due time, the students returned to Moscow. However, Irma stayed in the U.S.A and Anna arranged for her students to work with Irma.20


Irma left these words: [I`ll teach until Isadora`s work is finished┘I want to raise teachers.]21 To fulfill this promise, Irma opened [The Isadora Duncan School of Dance] in 1931. According to The New York Times in 1931, the school had the support of Isadora`s brother Augustin Duncan, as well as the conductors Walter Damrosch and Leopold Stokowski. Stepping up to lend support were photographers Edward Steichen and Arnold Genth, writer Max Eastman, and the wife of the great singer Enrico Caruso.22 Irma had succeeded in gathering around her New York`s artists and art sophisticates.


Irma also was able to fulfill Isadora`s dream of dancing to Beethoven`s Ninth Symphony. She did so in 1933 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. According to The New York Times, fifty Duncan dancers, six hundred character dancers, sixteen singers, and a 200-person orchestra took part in this major event. Walter Damrosch

conducted.23 I interviewed one of Irma`s students, Gemze De Lappe, who was a child, took part in the Madison Square Garden`s Ninth Symphony concert. She recalled that it was a huge event and a wonderful performance.24


In 1937, Irma wrote a book on the technique of Duncan Dance entitled The Technique of Isadora Duncan. Previously, however, she had published Isadora Duncan`s Russian Days with Allan Ross MacDougall, who had been a private secretary to Isadora in 1945. Then in 1965, Irma published her autobiography Duncan Dancer. As a writer, she came full circle as Isadora`s consummate apprentice who would come into her own and pass the baton to the next generation. Because, unfortunately, there is no motion picture record of Isadora`s schools, Irma`s book on technique becomes a priceless contribution to the understanding of Isadora`s vision. Irma died, at age 80, in Santa Barbara in 1977.25 Her students, Hortense Kooluris and Julia Levine, created in 1977 [The Isadora Duncan Commemorative Company] and from this company many of the next generation of Duncan Dancers were born. There are now many Duncan dance teachers and dancers all over the world.




In this paper, I focused on Isadora`s adopted daughters who carried forth the Duncan Dance. I discussed their activities after having left Isadora`s direct influence. Theresa, Anna, Lisa, and Irma became the successors of Duncan Dance after Isadora`s death. They taught and danced, each in her own way. Theresa, Anna, and Irma taught in the U.S.A. while Lisa did so in France. From these four dancers most of the following generations were born.


Theresa used classical music that Isadora did not use at her performances and she danced until she was 87. Anna created large performances at Lewishon Stadium: however, her career was not just limited to dance but also involved theatre and film as an actress. Lisa taught dance in France and made her version of Orpheus, in this version, she used masks at her performances and created a new interpretation of the work. Irma did several performances with her Moscow students in many countries, later with American students in the U.S.A. She danced to Beethoven`s Ninth Symphony which had been Isadora`s dream. Moreover, she published a technique book on Duncan Dance and books on Isadora, greatly contributing to Duncan Dance. Owing to Isadora Duncan and the efforts of the four Isadorables, Duncan Dance spread all over the world and continues to be pursued to this day.




I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the descendants of Isadora Duncan≈Ligoa Duncan, Michel Duncan, and Dore Duncan≈for the help they have given me in my research, and to the Duncan Dancers Gemze De Lappe, Pamela De Fina and to other dancers, too numerous to list.




1 According to newspapers, Theresa started her solo performance from 1922: Dunning, Jennifer. [Maria-Theresa Duncan, a Dancer and Last of the `Isadorables` Dies.] Los Angeles Times 17 Dec. 1987.


2 She founded her own school called [School of The Classical Dance] at 113 West 57th St., Studio 604. He husband, Stephan Bourgeois was a president of [The Foundation of the Classic Dance, Inc.] and also was one of the teachers at the Foundation. He gave lectures on paintings and sculptures to her students.


3 All dancers` ancestors were Greek, dancers were Anastasia, Calliroe, Maia, Nike, Eutherpi, Athene, Anatole, Ludmilla, Meropie, Kore, Aigera.


4 According to: Jennifer Dunning Theresa danced at the White House in 1942 ([Maria-Theresa Duncan, a Dancer and Last of the `Isadorables` Dies.] The New York Times 16 Dec. 1987, p.28). However, according to Pamela De Fina, she danced at the White House on May 2nd, 1933 (Maria Theresa: Divine Being Guided by a Higher Order, Pennsylvania Dorrance, 2003, p.16).


5 I have done interviews with descendants of Isadora Duncan, and I confirmed this. (Duncan, Ligoa. Personal Interview. 9 Aug. 2011, Duncan, Michel. Personal Interview.10 Aug. 2011, Duncan, Dore. Personal Interview. 20 Aug. 2011)


6 I have done interviews with a student of Theresa, Pamela De Fina. She said that Theresa`s way of teaching was as follows: First she started from a story, then she created gestures that interpreted the story; afterwards, she developed the gestures into movements and created new works supported by music. She took wave movements that were very typical for Duncan Dance, and made movements of strength and weakness; on the other hand, she said that Isadora said [Don`t imitate me], and she created her works that followed her soul. (De Fina, Pamela. Personal Interview. 5 and 6 Aug. 2011)


7 The theater remains as [August Wilson`s Theater.]


8 The Anna Duncan dancers are Anna Criss, Ester Lubin, Abigail Goodstein, Judith Seinfeld, Julia Levine, Selma Rubin and Ethel Goodman.


9 Lewishon Stadium opened in 1915, and it shut down in 1973. Famous composers and conductors like George Gershwin and Eugene Ormandy used this stadium. This stadium sat 20,000 people at maximum.


10 Gemze De Lappe is an American dancer who worked closely with Agnes de Mille and was originally trained by Irma Duncan, Anna Duncan and Michel Fokine. She was in Fokine's company. But she also took part in Broadway musical theatre performances: The King and I, Paint Your Wagon, Juno, West End and Oklahoma!


11 [Duncan Sisters Offer Moods of the Dance.] Los Angeles Times, 27 Feb. 1924.


12 School`s pamphlet: [Cours de Danse Lisa Duncan.]


13 Divoire, Fernand. Pour la danse, ditions de la Danse, 1935.


14 Robinson, Jacqueline. Modern Dance in France, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997, p.59.


15 Delouche, Dominique. Maya: Portrait of Maya Plisetskaya, VAI, 2009.


16 Lenin, who liked Duncan Dance, gave a little support to the school. After he died on January 21st in 1924, it became more difficult to get support from the new government. So, Isadora decided to do performances in Germany to support her school and did her farewell performance on September 29th 1924 at the Bolshoi Theatre.


17 [Local and General.] Harbin Observer 16 Oct. 1926. I found this newspaper article at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.


18 [Irma Duncan Gives Fine Dance Recital.] The New York Times 28 Dec. 1928. [Duncan Dancers in Charming Program.] The New York Times 31 Dec. 1928. Martin, John. [The Dance: Concerning The Duncan School.] The New York Times 6 Jan. 1929. Martin, John. [The Dance: The End of a Record Season.] 19 May 1929. [Big Audience Greets Duncan Dancers.] The New York Times 29 Dec. 1929.


19 [Irma Duncan is sued.] The New York Times 26 Jan. 1930. Sol Hurok was a famous impresario and he was a producer of Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine.


20 After the Moscow students left the U.S.A., Anna sent her students to Irma and they were called the [American Duncan Dancers.]


21 Carleton, Varna. [Duncan Dancers Begin Season Tonight.] World 6 Oct. 1929.


22 [Duncan School to Open.] The New York Times 13 Dec. 1931.


23 [Activities of Musicians Here and Afield.] The New York Times 22 Jan. 1933.


24 De Lappe, Gemze. Personal Interview. 18 Sep. 2011.


25 Kisselcoff, Anna. [Irma Duncan Dead; Disciple of Isadora.] The New York Times 22 Sep. 1977.




Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. Quill, 1986.


Caen, Edouard et Pierre Abraham. Danser c`est vivre : Georges Pomies. Editions Pierre Tisne, 1939.


De Fina, Pamela. Maria Theresa: Divine Being Guided by a Higher Order. Dorrance, 2003.


Dikovskaya, Lily. In Isadora`s Steps. Book Guild, 2008.


Divoire, Fernand. Pour la Danse. Edition de la Danse, 1935.


Duncan, Anna. In the Footsteps of Isadora. Dansmuseet, 1996.


-. In the Footsteps of Isadora. Dansmuseet, 2010.


Duncan, Doree, ed. Life into art : Isadora Duncan and Her World. Norton & Company, 1993.


Duncan, Isadora. Der Tanz Der Zukunft. Verlegt Bel Eugen Diederichs, 1903.


-. My Life. Liveright, 1927.


-. The Art of the Dance. Theatre Arts Books, 1928.


Duncan, Irma, and Allan Ross Macdougall. Isadora Duncan`s Russian Days. Covici Friede, 1929.


Duncan, Irma. The Technique of Isadora Duncan. Kamin, 1937.


-. Duncan Dancer. Wesleyan University Press, 1965.


Lowenthal, Lillian. The Search for Isadora. Princeton Book, 1993.


Musee Bourdelle. Isadora Duncan : Une Sculpture Vivante. Paris Musee, 2009.


Robinson, Jacqueline. Modern Dance in France : An Adventure 1920-1970. Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997. (Robinson, Jacqueline. L`aventure de la danse moderne en France 1920-1970. Editions Bouge, 1990.)


Brochure, Program, Magazine and Newspapers


[Education du Corps-Plastique, Rythme et Danses.] Brochure of Lisa Duncan School, n.d. Martin, John. [Maria-Theresa in Dance Recital.] The New York Times 24 May 1937.


[Recital Lisa Duncan.] Program of Lisa Duncan`s performance at Theatre National de l`Opera Comique, 1936.


[Four Soloists From the Duncan Ballet Troupe.] Harbin Daily News, n.d.


[Irma Duncan Gives Fine Dance Recital.] The New York Times 28 Dec. 1928.


[Lisa Duncan et son ensemble.] La Semaine Paris, 9 May 1930.


[Music: Anna Duncan at Stadium.] The New York Times 7 Jul. 1931.


Address for correspondence:

Emi Yagishita


Copyright 2013, Emi Yagishita


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