Laying the foundation for American modern dance

Duncan dancing in Greece, wearing her trademark tunic and sandals—and shocking the dance world.

In an era when ballet and burlesque were the only dance options available to women, Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) chose to break the mold, anchoring her style in authentic, free-spirited movement that flowed naturally from the dancer’s body. She simultaneously forged new possibilities for female performers and established the basis for American modern dance.

Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, and she studied ballet, ballroom dancing and Delsarte gymnastics. She quit ballet lessons early in her childhood because the movement felt restrictive and ugly. (Ever dramatic, Duncan would later tell audiences that she learned to dance by watching the ocean and equating the tide’s pull and push to her breathing.) At 18, she made her professional debut in the theatrical touring company of Augustin Daly in Chicago. In 1899 Duncan journeyed to Europe to begin a solo career. Fellow expatriate Loie Fuller, already famous in Paris for her extraordinary use of colored lighting and fabric, soon invited Duncan to join her company, Loie Fuller and Her Muses, and later sponsored her first continental tour.

Duncan became fascinated with ancient Greek culture and its hedonistic associations, shockingly exchanging the Victorian corset for the more revealing tunic as her performance costume—giving herself the freedom to move unrestrained. Her movement style was centered upon continuous, natural movement, like walking, skipping, running and leaping, which was often criticized by the ballet crowd. (When Vaslav Nijinsky saw her perform, he refused to recognize her work as art because he claimed it wasn’t based in technique.) Duncan further shocked balletomanes by performing barefoot. During her 20-plus years in Europe, she founded three schools to pass down her principles—in Germany, France and Russia—but all closed within her lifetime.

Duncan’s personal life was often as radical and headline-grabbing as her performance career. She had two children out of wedlock (products of scandalous affairs), both of whom died tragically in Paris when her car accidentally rolled into the Seine River. Her own early death was equally catastrophic: Her scarf was caught in the spokes of a car’s wheel, breaking her neck. —Rachel Rizzuto

Fun Fact

* Duncan was so confident in her ability, even as a teenager, that she marched into the office of famous theater manager and playwright Augustin Daly, declaring herself the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman. He hired her.

Movement Style

Duncan’s main movement vocabulary stemmed from basic actions, like walks, skips, jumps and runs. She believed that all energy expressed itself through wave-like movement and originated in the solar plexus. A rippling of the spine and specific use of breath are characteristic of her work. Duncan often performed to Romantic music (Schubert, Chopin, Brahms) and was said to electrify the space in her solos.

Duncan and the six members of her dance troupe, the Isadorables. These pupils helped preserve and teach her style of dance.

The Legacy Lives On

Duncan’s influence can be seen in the movement of Doris Humphrey, José Limón and Mark Morris. Her spirit and principles remain alive today via the work of several dance organizations that reconstruct her pieces and create Duncan-inspired new dances, including:

-Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company and Dance Foundation, both founded by third-generation Duncan dancer Lori Belilove

-Isadora Duncan International Institute in New York, directed by Jeanne Bresciani

-Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble, based in Miami, FL, and directed by Andrea Mantell-Seidel

Resources:

Print:

“Isadora Duncan,” by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, January 2012

“Loie Fuller,” by Susan Chitwood, Dance Teacher, July 2009

Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson, Dance Horizons/Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1992

Dance as a Theatre Art, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, Dance Horizons/Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1992

WEB:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org

Photos from top: by Raymond Duncan, courtesy of the Isadora Duncan International Institute; by Arnold Genthe, courtesy of IDII

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