Isadora Duncan


May 27, 1878 - September 14, 1927

Isadora Duncan: Dances

The Daughter is the Mother to the Woman Dance

Isadora Duncan rejected the constraints of formal ballet and devised her own unique lyrical free-form style of dance. American audiences were disconcerted, even outraged at her non-conformity, but European audiences were more appreciative. Her influence on modern dance is undeniable. Duncan was also a fiercely independent woman of radical and perhaps racist social values.

Isadora was born in San Francisco, the youngest of four children. Her father, Charles Duncan was a poet and he divorced her mother Mary Dora, a music teacher, shortly after Isadora's birth. The family plunged into poverty. Despite their poor condition the Duncan environment was rich in cultural, artistic and intellectual stimulation. After the failure of the marriage, Mary Dora rejected her Irish Catholic religious background and became a follower of the agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll. Ingersoll, a lawyer, a Civil War veteran and a former attorney general of Illinois achieved some notoriety for his lectures and writings which attacked popular Christian beliefs. Isadora's mother would read Ingersoll's works to her children.

The absence of a father and the strong unconventional attitudes of her mother created a stridently independent woman who preached and lived a life that we might call distinctly "feminist." This independence, married to her artistic nature, created a soul that forever battled the demands of conventional society with the demands of her art. Isadora didn't straddle the fence between the two worlds. Her body and her soul were clearly attuned to the calling of her art.

Given the realities of her childhood she eschewed the concept of marriage (although she did get married now and then) on both personal and political grounds. She recognized that marriage and the artistic spirit are not compatible.

Marriage is an absurd and enslaving institution, leading- especially with artists- inevitably to the divorce courts, and preposterous and vulgar lawsuits.

The Dance of Passionate Passions

Isadora Duncan was a woman brimming over with passion. And love, like art, was a continuing obsession. Her first love affair, at age 11, was a secret from the object of her affections. Vernon, a young chemist who worked in a drug store was a dance student of Isadora's older sister Elizabeth.

I wrote in my journal that I was madly, passionately in love, and I believe that I was. Whether Vernon was conscious of it or not, I do not know. At that age I was too shy to declare my passion...I sat up until the small hours recounting to my journal the terrifying thrills which I felt... This passion lasted two years and I believed that I suffered quite intensely...That was my first love. I was madly in love, and I believe that since then I have never ceased to be madly in love.

Her second intense love affair began in Paris in 1905 when she met the stage designer Gordon Craig. This affair produced Isadora's first child, a daughter named Deirdre born in 1906. Despite her deep passion for Craig the inevitable conflicts between life, love and art emerged. Liberated women do not always fall in love with liberated men.

After the first few weeks of wild, impassioned love-making, there began the waging of the fiercest battle that was ever known, between the genius of Gordon Craig and the inspirations of my Art.

"Why don't you stop this?" he used to say. "Why do you want to go on the stage and wave your arms about? Why don't you stay at home..." [H]is jealousy as an artist would not allow him to admit that any woman could really be an artist.

Isadora's second child, a son Patrick, was born in 1910. This birth was the result of a romance with Paris Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Again her love life conflicted with her artistic life.

My life has known but two motives- Love and Art- and often Love destroyed Art, and often the imperious call of Art put a tragic end to Love. For these two have no accord, but only constant battle.

This dialectic between "love" and "art" is but an umbrella covering a wide range of dualities. The tension between her creative life and domestic responsibility, between her public persona and her private self, between her passionate love and her motherly love...all this tension and conflict somehow found its expression in her art, which was exhibited in the movement of her body. Commenting on Duncan's art, Linda Tomko, wrote in her essay "She Saw America Dancing" (Women's Review of Books, Volume XIII: June 1, 1996), that Isadora's dancing was

about transgression, but not primarily about sexual transgression. It was cultural transgression: a refusal to respect the boundaries between the public and the private, between art and life. The spectator's pleasure lay in the play across boundaries.

Isadora writes about how much she loved her children, Deirdre and Patrick.

How empty and dark would life be without [my children], for more than my Art and a thousand times more than the love of any man, they had filled and crowded my life with happiness.

Her commentary on the pregnancy and birth of her daughter is moving and heartfelt. But despite these expressed feelings, one suspects that like her lovers, her children too were sacrificed for her art. She talks about not seeing her young daughter for six months at a time while on dance tours. Despite expressions to the contrary, Isadora sacrificed everything for her "art."

The Sacrificial Dance

And then tragedy struck. In Paris, on April 13, 1913, it was a rainy afternoon. Isadora's children were accidentally drowned when the automobile they were in rolled into the Seine river. Her already faltering relationship with Singer all but collapsed. And so did her life, for awhile. But again, her "art" restored her, in part. After a convalescence that included refugee work in Albania and romance in Constantinople she returned to Paris.

Although the love affair with Singer was over he continued to support her and her dream of creating a dance school community. For a brief time the school flourished in Paris at the Bellevue Hotel which Singer had purchased for Isadora. But by 1914 the world situation had become ominous as the Great War began to unfurl its fury in Europe. Her school and its students were moved to New York to avoid the hostilities. Isadora had also become pregnant again, but the baby died at childbirth. (The father apparently was an Italian lover euphemistically referred to as Michael Angelo).

Isadora spent most of the war moving around. She performed in South America where she was surprised to see "the mixture of black and white races taken with nonchalance." She learned to dance the tango in Argentina. She visited and performed in Cuba. In 1917 she toured in America, but her performances were not well received.

In 1921 the Soviet Union invited Isadora to Russia to open a dance school. There she met the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, seventeen years her junior. She married Esenin in 1922 and together they toured the United States. Their reception in America was uniformly hostile. They were accused of being "Bolsheviks" and their politics, not their art, became the main focus of their appearances. The marriage soon dissolved (Esenin would commit suicide in 1925).

The End Dance

In 1926 Isadora began her autobiography, My Life in which she covered her life history up to her departure for Russia in 1921. On September 14, 1927 while riding in an automobile, Isadora Duncan died tragically and suddenly when the scarf around her neck got caught in the rear-wheel spokes of the open-air car. She died instantly.

Enigmatic and paradoxical to the end, Isadora Duncan's life exhibits the very complex choreography that is the life of the modern artist.

Isadora Duncan External Links


Isadora Duncan-Official Cosmic Record
1997Virginsof.277321 89040
Total 1 Season

1998 Virgins Roster

CBA menu

Isadora Duncan 1998 Cosmic Player Plate
Published: February 3, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association