Isadora Duncan 1877(?)-1927

American dancer and autobiographer.


Considered a proto-feminist for her unconventional lifestyle and for the
promotion of herself as a "liberated" woman, Duncan is best known as one of the
originators of modern dance. She was also a teacher of dance and wrote on its
techniques and cultural significance. Her autobiography, My Life (1927), is a
revealing self-portrait of Duncan's artistic and emotional life.

Biographical Information

Duncan was born in San Francisco and raised by her mother. Duncan's father
abandoned the family when she was still an infant, forcing her mother to support
the children from her earnings as a music teacher. Allowed to leave school at the
age of ten to pursue an interest in dancing, Duncan began her career in Chicago
and then moved to New York. Her provocative dances shocked American sensibilities
of the day, however, and in 1899 she left the United States for Europe, where her
improvisational, free-spirited dance performances met with widespread approval.
In the first two decades of the century Duncan successfully toured most of
western and eastern Europe. She opened short-lived but influential dancing
schools in France and Germany and became both a popular public personality and a
critically respected innovator of modern dance. Because she danced in Russia
before the revolution and had a decisive impact on the ballet styles of Mikhail
Fokine and Sergei Diaghilev, Duncan was invited in 1921 by the government of the
Soviet Union to found and run a school for dancing in that country. While in
Russia she married poet Sergei Esenin and became a Soviet citizen. Esenin, who
was twenty years younger than Duncan, committed suicide in 1924. Three years
later, after having completed most of her autobiography, Duncan was killed in an
automobile accident when the scarf she was wearing became entangled in the wheels
of her car.

Major Works

Commentators note that Duncan's most significant accomplishments were her own
celebrity and her dancing; and of the latter-save for still photographs of her on
stage-there is no surviving record. My Life and The Art of the Dance (1928),
which collects some of her essays and other writings, present her thoughts on
dancing and on the creative process. Given its perfunctory glosses on certain
aspects of her life, and Duncan's tendency to mythologize herself, My Life has
been described 
Isadora Duncan 1877(?)-1927 

as a somewhat inaccurate and self-serving memoir. The volume has also been
criticized for its banal prose style; most critics agree with Linda Pannili that
Duncan's "medium was movement, not words." Nonetheless, My Life is considered
valuable for its glimpses of Duncan struggling with the demands of her art, her
career, and her personal life. Despite the fact that her greatest successes were
in Europe, Duncan believed that her dance was quintessentially American in
nature. She felt that her movements were the direct expression of her soul. From
this followed her teaching that women should learn to control their bodies and
spirits through dance, gaining for themselves a measure of the autonomy enjoyed
by men. Critics have likened her belief in self-reliance and inner inspiration to
American transcendental romanticism. Pannili argues that Duncan was much like
poet Walt Whitman in this regard-both "rejected the duality of the soul and
body." Stuart Samuels concluded: "Isadora Duncan's death was mourned by many. She
left no work that could be performed again, no school or teaching method, and few
pupils, but with her new view of movement she had revolutionized dance."