Honoring the Mother of Modern Dance: Bisexual, Indelible, Revolutionary

This Women’s History Month, we remember Isadora Duncan.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was arguably one of the most influential American dancers ever to have lived. The “Mother of Modern Dance” was able to bring life to dance — and dance to life. The development of her style of dance was a natural phenomenon, a rediscovery of the traditional principles of beauty, motion, and form. Isadora’s dances derived from the impulse to embrace destiny head-on in her whirlwind journey, filled with tragedy and ecstasy alike. She was committed to dancing a different dance through abstract, universal expressions of the human condition. She was the epitome of the tragic romantic artist

Isadora was born in San Francisco, California in 1877. Her mother was a piano teacher who consistently encouraged and fostered her daughter’s appreciation of the arts. Between the ages of six and 10, Isadora commenced her creative career by providing dance lessons to many of the neighborhood children. 

In 1986, the fledgling dancer secured her first legitimate job with a New York dance company, despite having no formal training. However, her position there was short-lived. A lifelong career in theatre using the “mechanical” imposition of ballet steps would’ve been a job she hated with a passion. She preferred mostly-improvisational dances inspired by the world. Isadora once stated, “The natural language of the soul is the movement of the body.” She longed to dance — not in the form of a nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette — but in the form of a woman in her purest expression. No longer at war with spirituality and intelligence, instead joining them together in glorious harmony.

Isadora’s opposition to the rigidity of classical ballet gave rise to her reluctance to perform wearing footwear. She was renowned for dancing with silk scarves enlacing her bare feet. Ironically, one eccentric scarf she fashioned would later become the very instrument of her unusual death. 

Her wild life and strong belief in free love and leftist politics contributed to her inveterate passion for living on the edge. Her opinion that “any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract, and then goes into it, deserves all of the consequences,” combined with the fact that she referred to her first experience of matrimony as “a highly overrated performance,” signified her aversion to monogamy. 

She helped free ballet from its conservative restrictions by liberating herself from modest attire and opting to wear free-flowing dresses and signature Grecian-inspired tunics. This radical fashion choice influenced many dancers who succeeded her. Modern dance is distinguished by complete freedom of movement, and it was the first style of dance to be labeled as a “creative art.” Isadora applied the same approach to love as she did to dance. 

Isadora Duncan lived in New York and Chicago briefly before relocating to Europe at the age of 21. In the United States, her career hadn’t evolved the way she’d hoped, and she felt unappreciated. This experience led her to move and study abroad, where she attained great success and fame. Classes in Greek Mythology and Visual Iconography enhanced her knowledge and refined her artistic ability. 

She dressed in provocative sheaths inspired by Greek imagery and Italian Renaissance paintings. Her first notable feat was a tour of Budapest, Hungary, where she sold out a stream of shows in 1902. It wasn’t long before she was enacting her very own life story, scantily clad as a woodland nymph in packed theaters and dance halls throughout Europe. 

Isadora wasn’t fond of the commercial aspects of public performance. She believed they distracted her from her true callings: the creation of beauty and the education of youth. Following her heart, Isadora opened several dance schools, with the first institute opening in 1904 in Germany. This school was home to the “Isadorables,” Isadora’s six young female protégées who went on to continue her legacy. In 1919, she legally adopted all six girls, and they even changed their last name to Duncan. Sadly, her dance schools closed down some time after her death in 1927. 

In 1905, Isadora toured Russia for the first time. Her shows had a profound impact on the Ballet Russes, a ballet company in Paris. Sergey Diaghilev, art critic and ballet impresario, said “We do not deny that Duncan is a kindred spirit. Indeed. We carry the torch she lit.” Isadora impressed fans, dancers, choreographers, and critics. “The pioneer of modern dance courted controversy in her lifetime, but her memory has continued to influence the way we think about dance today,” the Royal Opera House writes. Her loosely-styled hair, racy costumes, and evocative performances raised her to the status of a revolutionary dancer. These solo performances launched an inspirational international career that was ongoing until her untimely death. 

Isadora bore her first child, a daughter, in 1906. Four years later, she had a son with a sewing machine millionaire. Both of her children died a horrific, heartbreaking death in 1913. Her eight-year-old daughter and three-year-old son were riding in a vehicle in Paris when it crashed and rolled into the Seine, causing calamity and ruin. Subsequently, Isadora turned to alcohol for comfort and escape. She gained weight, and her style of dance transformed. 

When she toured America for the first time from 1915 to 1918, several spectators claimed to have seen the sorrow within her soul, grieving for her lost children. Isadora believed that “Every soul longs to express itself in dance, and dance should be an essential part of modern living.” She expressed her own tragic loss every time she stepped onto a stage. 

Although Isadora Duncan often mocked the act of exchanging marital vows, she contradicted her own beliefs in 1921 by marrying Sergei Yesenin, one of the most popular and well-known Russian poets of the 20th century. Isadora was 18 years his senior and only spoke and understood a few Russian words, and Sergei didn’t speak any English. He did accompany his prolific wife on a tour of Europe and her last tour of the U.S. In the midst of one of Isadora’s American performances, she revealed that she is bisexual, an atheist, and a communist. Onstage in Boston, she waved a red scarf while uncovering her bare breast. She exclaimed, “This is Red. So am I.”

One year after entering into wedlock, Sergei left Isadora and headed back to Moscow. He disliked the United States. He said, “America is a stinking place where not just art is being murdered, but with it, all the loftiest aspirations of humankind.” In 1923, Sergei was arrested twice, and rumors of his excessive drinking and public outbursts circulated. Several sources stated he’d been battling severe depression. In 1925, he died by suicide.  

Isadora’s influence continued to spread. She created a sensation every place that she danced. On September 14, 1927, she was a passenger in an Amilcar CGSS automobile traveling in Nice, France in the dead of night. The hand-painted silk scarf she had draped around her neck became entangled with the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, forcefully pulling her out of the car and ultimately breaking her neck. She was brought to the nearest hospital, where the attending doctor pronounced her dead at the age of 50. Isadora Duncan‘s remains were cremated. Her ashes lay beside her children’s at the famous cemetery Pére Lachaise in Paris. The inscription on her tombstone reads: “Isadora DUNCAN 1877-1927 Ballet School of the Opera of Paris.” Though her style could not be learned, her influence could and can still be felt.

“You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” — Amanda Palmer


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