Woman Making History #25: Isadora Duncan


Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the mother of modern dance.

Duncan was born in San Francisco in 1877. Her birth name was Dora Angela. She was raised by her mother, her father having left when she was a small child. Both of Duncan's parents were artists, her mother a musician and her father a poet. Duncan's mother supported her family by giving piano lessons, and both Duncan and her sister supplemented the family income by giving dance lessons.

Duncan began her dancing career in Chicago in 1895, where she was rejected by many theaters, who said her style of dancing would never be suitable for the stage, before finding work dancing in a saloon. After being seen in the saloon, Duncan was cast in a small role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her family settled in New York.

After enjoying brief and fleeting fame in New York, Duncan and her family moved to London in 1898. After some lean months, Duncan was "discovered" in a park by a London stage star, and her European career was born.

In 1909, Duncan opened a dancing school in Paris, while continuing to perform throughout Europe. She created her own style of bohemian dance, rejected the disciplined postures of ballet as "ugly and unnatural."

Both Duncan's work and her personal life were very controversial. Not only did she expose more of herself on stage and dance in more provocative ways than were considered appropriate at the time, she also bore two children out of wedlock, each with different fathers. (Sadly, both of her children were killed in a car accident with their nanny in 1913.) Finally, Duncan was openly bisexual. Though her life and work were, at least in some circles, accepted and embraced in Europe, she was never lauded in the United States.

In 1922, Duncan, who was sympathetic to the communist experiment, moved to the Soviet Union. She then married a Russian poet 17 years her junior. Her husband was mentally unstable and abusive, and they parted after about a year. He committed suicide in 1925.

In 1924, Duncan returned to Paris. She suffered financial difficulties and alcoholism. In 1927, she was killed in a freak accident when her scarf caught in the open-spoked wheel of an automobile.

Duncan's legacy has lived longer than she did. During her lifetime, she opened two more dancing schools, in Germany and the Soviet Union. In her last years, she wrote an autobiography, Ma Vie, that was published posthumously to very good reviews. Two films, Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967) and Isadora (1968), immortalized Duncan decades after her death.

Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
Women in History


Thank you for highlighting this fascinating woman, who i had never heard of before! I've been enjoying your theme as much for the familiar faces (Ellen, Ani) as for these more obscure ones. Looking forward to the final few picks!

Nice article.
I am flattered to see that the picture you are using--and you are very welcome to use it--is of me (Patricia Adams) performing "Orientale" to Chopin mazurka Opus 68 No.2.
I'm wondering if you would mind linking this page to our website: http://www.dancesbyisadora.com/Dances_by_Isadora/Home.html.
I have often been told that I resemble Isadora visually and in my rendering of Duncan's choreography.
Please visit our website for more information on the company.
You can contact me directly at: patt.kissinger@gmail.com
Thank you,

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