Isadora Duncan PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 21 November 2008 14:19

Angela Isadora Duncan

Born: May 26, 1877, San Fransisco

Died: September 14, 1927, Nice, France.

Age: 50

Cause of death: Strangulation by scarf.

Notable because: Her fondness for flowing scarves  led to her unfortunate death. A famously colorful character who changed the world of dance.


Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the mother of Modern Dance. Although never very popular in the United States, she entertained throughout Europe.

Duncan was the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan, a banker, and Mary Dora Gray, youngest daughter of Thomas Gray, a California senator. The other children were Elisabeth, Augustin, and Raymond. 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. Duncan attended school for the early years of her life, but dropped out because she found it to be constricting to her individuality. Her family was very poor, so, to earn extra money, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children.

In 1895 she became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York, but soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899, she made the decision to move to Europe, first to London and, a year later, to Paris. Within two years she had achieved both notoriety and success.

Isadora Duncan performing barefoot. Photo by Arnold Genthe during her 1915-1918 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 Théâtre des Champs-Élysées 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 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 château 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.

Isadora Duncan

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. It is still unclear whether the poet was murdered or truly committed suicide.

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), 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. 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. 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.

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.

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..."

In another letter, written to de Acosta by Duncan, she writes; "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.

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.

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.

Tomb of Isadora Duncan on Père 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 automobile of a handsome young Italian mechanic, Benoît Falchetto, whom she had ironically nicknamed 'Buggatti' [sic]. (The marque of the automobile is open to dispute but the informed opinion is that it was an Amilcar, a 1924 GS model. It was regularly described and filmed as a more glamorous Bugatti.) Before getting into the car, she said to a friend, Mary Desti (mother of 1940's Hollywood writer-director Preston Sturges), and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à 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 collection of the Beineke 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 à l'amour" ("I am off to love"), which Desti considered too embarrassing to go down in history as the legend's final utterance, especially since 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, which was a gift from Desti and was large enough to be wrapped 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, "The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly."

Isadora Duncan was cremated and her ashes were placed next to those of her beloved children in the columbarium of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At her death she was a Soviet citizen, and her will was the first of a Soviet citizen probated in the USA.

  • Isadora Duncan Lane in San Francisco is named after her.
  • In the Mage: The Ascension supplement Cult of Ecstasy, Duncan is considered an important figure in the Cult's history.
  • Isadora Duncan is mentioned in an episode of The Mighty Boosh' talking of her death and then subsequently Vince's scarf gets caught up in the wheel of the van.
  • In an episode of Steptoe and Son when Harold finds out that Albert had been to Russia during the civil war he asks "You weren't Isadora Duncan's dancing partner?"
  • In SNL she is portrayed in a skit in which she is deciding to wear a long or short scarf but her friend says to wear the long scarf and agrees with her friends decision.

Duncan's life has been portrayed most notably in the 1968 film, Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Vivian Pickles meanwhile 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. It is probably unmatched as a portrait of the pain and the glory that come with being an artist.

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. She even believes 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".

In the romantic comedy film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a diamond necklace supposedly once having belonged to Duncan is featured. While in the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles Edna Mode refuses to make a cape for Mr. Incredible's new uniform, citing numerous mishaps that previous heroes have had with their capes, perhaps inspired by Isadora's tangling and death from her scarf. The villain, Syndrome, is later killed in a similar way when his cape is caught in a jet engine. Roger Ebert drew this connection to Duncan in his review of the film.

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. 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". 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 tragic 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. Finally, the Constantines sang "Collect the body of Isadora Duncan" in their song The Long Distance Four, from the album Constantines.

  • 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 will catch and anchor in the wheel".


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 16:33

Add comment

Security code

Who's Online

We have 76 guests online