Anytime you read something about Isadora Duncan, the term “pioneer of modern dance” is mentioned. But Isadora was much more than that. Her influence transcended dance movements. She inspired a whole new lifestyle. She inspired people to express themselves through dance, be it in a classical institution, or in any other way possible.
The best way to explain her technique is “a beauty of simple movements”. She countered controversy during her lifetime, but she continued to influence dance. She had her bad moments, like her Wagnerian philosophizing, her personal tragedies, her death, and many other conspiracies that sensationalized her memory. But who was she?
Born in France in 1877, Isadora was the youngest of four children in a rich family. After her birth, her parents got divorced, and her father lost his treasure. Isadora lives with her mother and sisters in poverty. She quickly understood that the way for her to succeed is by teaching others, so she leaves school and starts giving dance lessons.
Isadora inherited the love for culture and art thanks to her mother, who was a piano player. She leaves for New York in her teenage years to start working in the dance industry professionally. She tries to implement her style in the choreography she worked on, adding elements from Greek culture. After a short time in America, she leaves again, this time packing her bags and moving to London. She speaks of love as the most important thing in the world, telling her students that “love is the only thing that moves the world”. She had two children, one of which she lost in a car accident. After the loss of her son, she gets pregnant again with the help of her colleague. Sadly, she loses her child. After sever misfortunes, she gives it to drinking.
Isadora died in 1927 in a car accident.
She firmly believed that “every soul longed to express itself in dance, and that dance should be an essential part of modern living”. Some of her quotes are remembered still today, and most of them are about dance. To fully understand her spirit, and her influence in dance, we just need to take a look at her wise words. She founded several schools in Europe, some of which are in Moscow. The Moscow school was founded by the Communist government. Sadly, none of the schools survived and they only produced pale imitators of her individual style. That being said, here are some popular quotes by Isadora.
- You were once wild here. Don't let them tame you
- The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet
- It seems to me monstrous that anyone should believe that the jazz rhythm expresses America. Jazz rhythm expresses the primitive savage
- The wind? I am the wind. The sea and the moon? I am the sea and the moon. Tears, pain, love, bird-flights? I am all of them. I dance what I am. Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea? I dance what I am
- Movements are as eloquent as words
- The Dance - it is the rhythm of all that dies in order to live again; it is the eternal rising of the sun
- If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it
- Dancing: The Highest Intelligence in the Freest Body
- There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul
- The dancer's body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.
Duncan’s novel approach to dancing was evident in her early classes in the early days. She believed that fantasy is what you need to follow. She followed her fantasy and improvised, teaching “any pretty thing that came into her head“. She disliked the commercial aspect of public performances, and she despised convention.
Instead, Isadora broke convention, and imagined dance as an art, tracing the roots back to sacred art. Duncan supported free and natural movements, and she draw her inspiration from folk dances, natural dances, nature, social dances, Greek arts, and much more. She brought a whole new level and approach to dancing, requiring athleticism that included skipping, jumping, leaping, tossing, running, and much more.
She moved away from the rigid ballet technique, and wanted to restore dance to a high art, not a form of entertainment. As for American dancing, she wrote the following “Let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance”. Duncan became the creator of modern dance by believing the solar plexus was the source of all movement, and she firmly supported the notion.
As mentioned previously, her schools merely inspired pale imitators. Her style could not be learned. It is something you either have, or you do not. You cannot teach “being spontaneous”. You must feel it inside of you. However, while her style could not be learned, her influence is still felt. Modern dance is heavily influenced by Isadora Duncan. During her tour in Russia, she reminded everyone of the beauty of simple movements.
And while her schools did not last long, her style is still danced today. The Mother of Dance’s changed the way people perceive dance, and the way people dance. Her influence goes beyond dance as well. In medicine, for example, Isadora Duncan Syndrome is a reference to an injury or death consequent to entanglement of neckwear with a wheel or other machinery.
Some of her cultural reference include:
- The 1968 movie Isadora, based on her autobiography. Vanessa Redgrave played Duncan and got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress
- The short ballet in 1976, called Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan
- The ballet Isadora, written and choreographed by the Royal Ballet’s Kenneth MacMillan and performed at the Covent Garden in 1981
- An 1989 documentary, titled “Isadora Duncan, Movement from the Soul
- An 1991 stage play, called When She Danced, focusing on her later years.