Isadora Duncan

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Duncan, Isadora

Duncan, Isadora (ĭzˌədôrˈə dŭngˈkən), 1878–1927, American dancer, b. San Francisco. She had little success in the United States when she first created dances based on Greek classical art. But in Budapest (1903), Berlin (1904), and later in London and New York City (1908), she triumphed. An innovator, pioneer, and liberator of expressive movement, she was inspired by the drama of ancient Greece. She danced barefoot to music that was often not written to be danced. Her costume, a revealing adaptation of the Greek tunic, was complemented by several colored scarves draped from her shoulders. Through her many tours, her schools in Berlin, Paris, Moscow, and London, and her daring and dynamic personality, she greatly influenced the development of modern dance. She was briefly (1922–23) married to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. In 1927 she gave her last concert in Paris; she died when her scarf caught in the wheel of her car while she was motoring at Nice.


See her autobiography (1927, repr. 1966) and The Art of The Dance, ed. by S. Cheney (1928, repr. 1970); biographies by I. Duncan (1958), W. Terry (1964), V. Seroff (1971), F. Blair (1987), and P. Kurth (2001).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Duncan, Isadora


Born May 27, 1878, in San Francisco; died Sept. 14, 1927, in Nice. American dancer.

Duncan was one of the first modern dancers to contrapose free expressive dance to the classical school of ballet. In 1903 she gave her first concert program in Budapest. Repudiating the school of classical dance, she asserted the principles of a universally accessible art of dance and advocated the idea of the general artistic education of children. In her creative work she was guided by models from ancient Greek fine arts and aspired to an organic union between dance and music. Duncan rejected traditional gestures and poses, preferring natural expressive movements. She replaced the ballet costume (the tutu, tights) with a free-flowing tunic and danced in bare feet. Duncan believed that dance movements derive from an “inner impulse.” In her concerts she used classical symphonic and piano music, interpreting the works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and other composers through dance. Her dancing was akin to pantomine. It consisted of elements of walking, running on half-toe, and expressive gestures. The dancer produced a great emotional impact on the spectators. “Free movements,” unsupported by dance technique, tended to substantially impoverish her art.

Duncan left no systematized dance method capable of meeting the demands of professional choreographic art. The schools founded by her in Germany (1904), France (1912), and the USA (1915) were short-lived. Duncan toured Europe and often visited Russia (1905, 1907-13) and was one of the first foreign artists who appreciated the importance of a socialist order for the development of the arts (she created a number of dances on revolutionary subjects). She lived in the USSR from 1921 to 1924. In 1921 she organized a studio in Moscow (that existed until 1949), which, after Duncan’s departure, was directed by her adopted daughter, Irma Duncan.


Moia zhizn’. Moscow, 1930. (Autobiography; translated from English.)
Tanets budushchego. Moscow, 1907. (Translation.)


Levinson, A. Staryi i novyi balet. Petrograd, 1917.
Shneider, I. Vstrechi s Eseninym. Vospominaniia. Moscow, 1965.
Seroff, V. The Real Isadora: A Biography. New York, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Duncan, Isadora

(1878–1927) dancer; born in San Francisco. Her parents were divorced shortly after her birth and she was raised by her poor but romantic mother, who filled her children with the sounds of music and notions of unconventionality. Isadora showed an early talent for dance and by age ten left school to teach dancing. She soon began to dance in public and in 1896 she went with her mother to New York City where she joined Augustin Daly's theater company as a dancer and actress. She disliked doing traditional dances, so in 1898 she began to perform her own free-style dances. In 1900 she made her debut in London, where she became interested in recreating what she perceived as the ancient Greek dances. By 1902 she was performing her own dances on the Continent to great acclaim. She also started a dance school in Berlin, tried to start a "Temple to the Dance" in Greece (1903–04), had a child by Gordon Craig, the British stage designer, and performed in Russia (1905, 1907, 1908). Wherever she went she gave lecture-demonstrations of what she called "the dance of the future," based on her improvised movements intended to unite music, poetry, and nature; she usually performed barefoot in revealing Greek tunics and with flowing scarves. Her American tour in 1908 was not successful but she went back to Europe and more acclaim. She also had another child, this one by Paris Singer, heir to the sewing machine fortune; when both her children drowned while in a car that accidentally rolled into the Seine (1913), her life not unnaturally became even more erratic although she showed a new profundity in her dances. In the following years she moved about—to the U.S.A., South America, San Francisco, Athens (Greece)—dancing and teaching with mixed success, and in 1921–22 she tried to start a school in Moscow. She married the much younger Russian poet, Sergei Essenin in 1922; mentally unstable, he drank his way through her money; her U.S. tour in 1923 led to charges of her being a Bolshevik, and they fled back to Russia with no money; Essenin deserted her in 1924 and committed suicide in 1925. Her school for young dancers had been taken over by others and she was penniless, so she went to France, where she gave one legendary final performance in Paris and wrote her autobiography, My Life (1927). She died in Nice, France, as dramatically as she had lived, when her long scarf caught in the spokes of a car wheel, breaking her neck. Although her influence on dance and the arts is debated, to some in her day and since she seemed one of the greatest spirits who had ever lived.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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