Editor’s note: We are lucky to have two fantastic summer interns at the Center for Women’s History, who are hard at work “finding women in the archives” of the New-York Historical Society. Their research will be incorporated into many ongoing initiatives, including our digital interactive exhibition, Women’s Voices, and our curriculum guide, Women and the American Story. We will also feature their writing on this blog throughout the summer. Today, college intern Andreia Wardlaw explores the life and legacy of Isadora Duncan, a “mother of modern dance” along with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, both of whom are featured in Women’s Voices. Duncan appears in the New-York Historical Society’s Arnold Genthe Photograph Collection alongside several other images of modern dance.
A San Francisco Childhood: The “Constant Spirit of Revolt”
Isadora Duncan was born in 1877 by the ocean in San Francisco, California, under what she would later describe as “the star of Aphrodite.” “My life and myself were born of the sea,” Duncan wrote in her autobiography, My Life, recounting how the movement of the Pacific Ocean influenced the free-flowing movements that would become characteristic of her repertoire as a dancer.
Duncan was born into what began as a traditional family, with three older siblings — Raymond, Elizabeth, and Augustin — and two married parents, musician Mary Isadora Gray and poet and Renaissance man Joseph Charles Duncan. However, shortly after her birth Duncan’s parents divorced. Her mother, in an unprecedented act of defiance against social norms, denounced Catholicism and the institution of marriage and began reciting to her children from the teachings of popular atheist Bob Ingersoll. It was the strong presence and ideas of Mary Gray, and her undying devotion to the cultivation of her children’s talents, that created the necessary environment and freedom for Isadora Duncan to create, unencumbered and unapologetically.
The divorce of her parents and Mary Gray’s emphasis on self-reliance and individualism are essential in understanding Duncan’s development during her formative years. At twelve years old, after her first visit from her father since her parents’ divorce, Isadora recalls “[deciding] then and there that I would live to fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women and for the right for every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue.” She believed that no free spirited woman would be able to exist within the confines of marriage, and that a woman should be just as comfortable having children as she pleased without being encouraged into matrimony. Her mother’s ideals not only colored Duncan’s image of marriage and relationships, but also cultivated unique qualities in her daughter,which would lead to her groundbreaking career and lifelong dedication to originality. As Duncan wrote in My Life, “The dominant note of my childhood was the constant spirit of revolt against the narrowness of the society in which we lived, against the limitations of life and a growing desire to fly eastward to something I imagined might be broader.” Duncan did eventually marry, and divorce, Russian poet Sergei Yesenin.
Developing a “New System” of Dance in California
Isadora Duncan first showed promise as a dancer at the age of six years old. She took it upon herself to gather some of the neighborhood babies and teach them how to dance in her family’s home. By the age of ten these classes for children turned into a lucrative amateur business venture, so much so that Mary Gray allowed her daughter to quit school (it helped that she could pass for 16 at the age of 10!) and teach the classes full-time. Duncan, along with her sister Elizabeth, gained local fame, and they were given opportunities to perform in some of the wealthiest homes in San Francisco.
Duncan’s reputation as a dance instructor continued to grow as she developed what she called “a new system” of dance consisting mainly of improvisation. At the encouragement of a family friend, Duncan had taken three classes with one of the most renowned ballet instructors in San Francisco. She eventually quit, stating that standing on toes was “ugly” and “not of nature.” Thus began her break from the rigid and constructed art form of dance — as exemplified by the genre of ballet — and her exploration of Greek antiquity in order to elevate free movement from salacious to societal.
Making Ends Meet in Chicago and New York
Duncan’s childhood, although filled with love and artistic encouragement, was marked by the poverty and the hardships associated with single motherhood. The condition of her childhood and her flagrant, rebellious nature made her ascent to fame from the fringes of society curious. Her early career was plagued by rejection and poverty as she followed her dreams first to Chicago, where she boldly attempted to convince theater troupes they were in need of her Grecian attitude and style of dance, and then to New York City, on the heels of famed performer and troupe owner Augustin Daly. In both cities Duncan and her mother teetered on the verge of starvation as she looked for work pursuing her passions. It was not only Isadora Duncan’s confidence in herself and her future but also her mother’s unflinching support and belief in her daughter’s talents that pushed the entire family to endure destitution and hunger in pursuit of artistic genius.
It was those early years in Chicago and New York City that generated controversy surrounding her branding of her career as strictly focused on Ancient Greek culture. While looking for work in Chicago, Duncan broke with her strict adherence to her own ideas of true artistic movement to take a job as a show girl. She auditioned for a Masonic Temple Roof Garden and was told to cut the Greek mimicking and do something with “skirts and frills and kicks.” Not only did this go against her ideas of Greek civility, but it also meant participating in a style of dance that was considered less then tasteful. Even after her move to New York City with Augustin Daly’s troupe, she was forced to conform to preexisting roles, which included playing in a pantomime and as a fairy dancing under turned-down theater lights in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In her autobiography, Duncan recounts her time in the theater with disgust. She used this disdain as inspiration, eventually deciding that New York no longer held opportunity for her and that Europe was her next mountain to conquer.
Success and Self-Promotion in Europe: A “Greek” Dancer
It was in Europe that Duncan developed her quasi-factual style of Greek dancing and climbed the ranks of popularity. Her benefactors were Parisian aristocracy and social elites including Countess Elisabeth and Prince and Princess Edmond de Polignac. As her career progressed, she began developing an ahistorical definition of Greek culture that was loosely based on her studies of Nietzsche and largely slanted to fit her needs. There were already Greek performers in Paris at the time of her arrival; however, they were associated with courtesans and salacious activities. Duncan managed to deflect this negative attention through savvy manipulation of her relationships, and through public rejection of all those outside of her influence. Throwing any ties to her theater past to the wind, along with her respect for those still in the field, Duncan began creating a career centered on her ideas of acceptability.
Although Duncan traced the origins of Grecian dance to Egypt and Asia, she relegated these places to the dustbins of history, chalking their significance up to influence alone and degrading their importance because they were “of another race.” She did not limit her racial judgments or exclusions to the past. Her feelings on African American styles of dance including ragtime and Jazz — which were growing in popularity and presenting themselves as one of her greatest competitions at the time — were also negative. Duncan felt that if Americans had adopted her style, “this deplorable modern [black] dancing, which has its roots in the ceremonies of the African primitive, could never have become dominant.” At the height of her fame she also trained her sights on those who were studying to emulate her style of dance, asserting her disapproval of their imitation.
Mother of Modern Dance: Isadora Duncan’s Legacy
Duncan was a master, not only of movement, but of using her association with elites and the positionality of her performances to distance herself from what would have been considered “low class” in other contexts. Instead, she propelled herself into the exalted category of classical antiquity. Her trajectory raises important questions about the privilege of “discovery,” and who we choose to remember as a maverick. Although not from an elite background, Duncan used her astute sense of self-promotion and connections to thrust herself into the spotlight. Ultimately, her popularity relied less on originality and accuracy and more upon association, exclusion, and craftiness. She solidified her seat at the table through constant reinvention and condemnation of those artists outside of her circle, all while maintaining a gregarious lifestyle.
Although she denounced earthly pleasures and money as limiting, Isadora Duncan maintained a fabulous lifestyle, full of American and European tours. She lived in France, vacationed in Versailles, entertained love affairs with creatively accomplished men, and mothered two children whom she loved unconditionally. Her life took a tragic turn when both of her children were killed in an automobile accident as they were leaving their home in Neuilly and traveling to meet their mother at Versailles. Years later, Duncan would die in her own fateful encounter with an automobile. As she was being taught to drive a new car by a French chauffeur, a gust of wind blew the long scarf wrapped around her neck into the air and under one of the wheels of the car. The scarf caught in the wheel, her neck was snapped, and she died just as dramatically as she lived.
We remember Isadora Duncan as one of the mothers of modern dance, a title shared by one of her predecessors, Martha Graham (also featured in Women’s Voices). Elevating dance to the artistic level Duncan did was no small feat, and came at the expense of the reputations of others in her field. Duncan’s career highlights the highs and lows of show business, revealing the celebrity possible through dance, the exclusivity of her ascent to fame, and the colored lens through which she projected her own success, and through which she is often remembered.
– Andreia Wardlaw, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Isadora Duncan (center) in a “Greek” scene, Arnold Genthe Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society Library (detail).