In the mid-19th century, dance was ready for a revolution. The ballet theater had been nearly reduced to a peep show in Paris by 1850, as is reflected in the art of Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and others. Tutus were being shortened. Victorian corsets were donned by young “gamines,” who pranced around for the bourgeoisie. Additionally, as a reaction against the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, an “ethereal” aesthetic became popular. Pointe shoes were invented by Marie Taglioni in 1827 to heighten the lithe look, and Romantic ballets starred fairies and nymphs. Even male dancing in Romantic ballets was tailored to please male audiences. Basically, a male dancer’s role was merely to frame the female body, support it, and aid in its contortion. Unfortunately, as more ballerinas fit this new ideal, theaters seemed to grow increasingly corrupt. As ballet developed a more scandalous reputation, many serious dancers realized that they had to drastically change their focus. This gave rise to new forms of ballet and a new style of dance known as modern dance.
Isadora Duncan performing barefoot; photo by Arnold Genthe during her 1915–18 American tour.
Isadora Duncan, arguably the first modern dancer, was born on May 27, 1877. Growing up in a family that struggled with poverty and separation, Duncan sought happiness through dance from an early age. Her favorite activity was to venture down to the beaches near her home in San Francisco and imitate the waves and birds. By the time she was six years old, Duncan held dance classes for the neighborhood children. Tall for her age, she told everyone she was 16, earning enough credibility to charge them money.¹ At 12 years of age, she made decisions that would definitively change her lifestyle. She took her first ballet class, and walked out after a mere 20 minutes. The same year, she dropped out of school. Free-spirited to the core, and with the support of her artistic mother, Duncan strove to escape the restraints of convention. Even though she lived in an era where women still had very limited rights, Duncan, in revolutionary fashion, repeatedly expressed, “I have my will.”²
After just a few minutes of one ballet class, Duncan knew that the Romantic ideal of the ballerina opposed her beliefs. The unnatural way in which it forced her to twist her body and squeeze herself into painful shoes led her to explore and express the natural symmetry of human bodies. Duncan developed a style so natural that many critics believed that her dance was improvisation. She used “wave” motions and circular forms throughout her dance to demonstrate her philosophy that movement comes from within, like rays emanating from the sun. These circular movements also tied into her belief in “connected thought,” or communication with socializing intent. This signified the equal part played by the performer and the audience member, discarding the Victorian notion of a dancer as an object at which to look.
One of the most controversial aspects of Duncan’s performance, which began to rise in popularity after she moved to London in 1898, was her attire. As a child, the only picture she had hanging in her room was a poster of Botticelli’s La Primavera. It was no coincidence that the first art she had ever seen matched her idea of the highest beauty. This memory, as well as her frequent trips to Athens and Rome, inspired her to wear shifts that resembled the Chitons worn in Ancient Greece. The nearly sheer fabric fell freely around her body, highlighting her womanly curves, as it did for the three Graces in La Primavera. She never wore shoes, perhaps to emphasize her connection to the Earth. Critics have tried to pigeonhole Duncan’s dance by calling it “Grecian-inspired,” but Duncan refused labels. “From the mystery of the Parthenon, the frescoes, the Greek vases, and the Tanagras came my dance—not Greek, not Antique, but in reality the expression of my soul moved to harmony by beauty.”³
Bessie Potter Vonnoh, The Fan, 1910; Silvered bronze; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
Yet, perhaps Duncan’s greatest legacy in dance was that she did not want one. She did not want a school named after her, or pupils to copy her work. She believed that every dancer should look within to be led in dance; in fact, she would not even allow a camera to film her while she was dancing because she did not want her performance to be reproduced, or to become a dead experience. She felt that her performances were transient, but so is life. After her tragic early death, her influence persisted in others’ choreography and styles. Michel Fokine, an iconic ballet choreographer, created Les Sylphides and Anna Pavlova’s famous Dying Swan, based on Duncan’s movement quality. Poet Carl Sandburg, sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, and painter Maurice Denis were inspired by Duncan and her dance. A work in NMWA’s collection, Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s The Fan, portrays a woman in a flowing robe that resembles the Greek tunic that Duncan wore in performances. Most importantly, however, Duncan revered dance, and she restored it to a sacred art through the celebration of natural femininity. We remember Isadora Duncan as the creator of modern dance and an early feminist.
“The dancer of the future will dance, not in the form of nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette, but in the form of woman in its greatest and purest expression. She will realize the mission of woman’s body and the holiest of all its parts. She will dance the changing life of nature, showing how each part is transformed into the other. From all parts of her body shall shine radiant intelligence, bringing to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands of women. She shall dance the freedom of woman. O, what a field is here awaiting her! Do you not feel that she is near, that she is coming, this dancer of the future! She will help womankind to a new knowledge of the possible strength and beauty of their bodies and the relation of their bodies to the earth nature and to the children of the future.”⁴
—Kristie Landing is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
1. The biographical information included here is based on Ann Daly, “Isadora Duncan and the Male Gaze,” in In Gender in Performance: The Presentation of Difference in the Performing Arts, ed. Senelick Laurence (New England, 1992), pp. 239–59; Paul David Magriel, Isadora Duncan, (New York, 1947); and Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck, Nicolas Nahumck, and Anne M. Moll, Isadora Duncan: The Dances (Washington, DC, 1994).
2. The quote included here was taken from Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck, Nicolas Nahumck, and Anne M. Moll, Isadora Duncan: The Dances (Washington, DC, 1994).
3. The quote included here was taken from Paul David Magriel, Isadora Duncan, (New York, 1947).
4. The quote included here was taken from Ann Daly, “Isadora Duncan and the Male Gaze,” in In Gender in Performance: The Presentation of Difference in the Performing Arts, ed. Senelick Laurence (New England, 1992), pp. 239–59.