Isadora Duncan

During a time when those in power were clinging to rigidity in all aspects of public and private domains, Isadora Duncan scoffed at tradition and made the world take notice. She used her passion for freedom to unshackle the female body and develop an entire new form of celebrating life ­– dance.

Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in either 1877 or 1878 and is a moving example of a person born with a gift. Sources claim that she began teaching dance as young as six years old, and that she had dropped out of school by age ten to devote her time to her career. Whether or not the legend is exaggerated, one thing is known for sure, by age twenty she had already become a worldwide sensation, and an independent success.

Isadora’s passion for dance led her to seek a traditional career but that was never successful. She attempted ballet instruction in New York City but dropped out, despising its restrictiveness. She balked at joining dance or theatre companies as she loathed binding agreements and contracts. Fiercely independent, she had no other choice but to create her own unique form of dance as a profession.

Ultimately, Isadora developed a style and way of performing that was entirely unprecedented. She danced barefoot. In an age of corsets and restrictive costumes she wore flowing gowns, Greek togas, and wasn’t embarrassed by occasional nudity. She selected classical compositions from Beethoven and other musicians who had not previously been used for choreography. She often performed outdoors, or used sets of the simple, art nouveau style of the Roaring 20s. Convention was no consideration.

Duncan performing barefoot during her 1915–18 American tour

Given Isadora’s indifference to traditional views on modesty and appropriate behavior for women, it is no wonder she was nontraditional in pretty much every other aspect of her life. From divorced parents, she had a lifelong distaste for marriage, and proudly had two children with two different men out of wedlock (one of the fathers being the son of Singer Sewing Machine founder Isaac Singer). When she did briefly marry it was to a Russian poet eighteen years her junior. Despite the political tensions of the time she declared herself a communist, and was a proud atheist. It is no wonder so many feminist scholars have come to praise Isadora as a trailblazer.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Isadora’s life is her adopted children and the legacy they built. Amongst her many dance education projects was the Isadora Duncan School of Dance. Founded in Germany in 1904, it housed and educated girls from under privileged families, as Isadora reveled in molding the artistic interests of children. Eventually six of the most talented students: Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Lisa, Margot, and Erica began performing as a company and touring Europe with Isadora and were dubbed The Isadoras. The girls and their beloved teacher were all very close and stayed together for many years, relocating several times around the world.

In 1917 Isadora gave all six permission to legally take her last name. The girls eventually split from her and performed independently as a group for some time. All except one went on to have solo careers, but maintained an intense bond both with their instructor and with each other for the rest of their lives.

Isadora tragically and notoriously died in 1927 at the age of 49 (or 50) in a car accident when her scarf caught in the wheels of the car in which she was riding. I believe, however, that too much focus is given to the manner in which she died, as well as her so-called feminism. Isadora’s true legacy was the creation of an entire new way of movement, of celebrating and mourning the complexities of our existence, and generations of performers who continue to bless us with the beauty of modern dance.

Sentiment from the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio sums up so much about what it must have been like to know Isadora:

“Oh, Isadora, it is only possible to be alone with you in Nature.
All other women destroy the landscape, you alone become part of it.
You are part of the trees, the sky, you are the dominating goddess of Nature.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Janice Formichella @JaniceLikes

Find out more…

Luckily, there has been some well-done archival work to preserve the history, images, and footage of Isadora Duncan and her career. Some websites of interest:

The Isadora Duncan Pandect 

Isadora Duncan Archive

There is a great 3 part mini-series on YouTube about Isadora, watch the first part here:


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