May 27 – Happy Birthday to the “Mother of Modern Dance”

Posted on May 27, 2014

Although the world-famous dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan was born in America – in my home state of California, actually – she lived most of her adult life in Europe and the Soviet Union.

Duncan (born on this date in 1877, according to some sources) grew up very poor, in a “broken home” (her parents divorced, so her mom raised her and her two brothers and sister). Her mom was a piano teacher who was passionate about the arts, and Isadora discovered an early passion, too, in dance. She began to teach “movement” to neighborhood children when she was just six years old. By the time she was ten, her classes had become pretty large, and she and her older sister dropped out of school to work teaching dance for pay.

When Duncan first went to Europe, she studied Greek mythology, and she fell in love with flowing tunics worn by the Ancient Greeks. She learned about the ancient rituals surrounding dance, and she developed a unique style that she carried into her own work as a dancer and choreographer.

For example, she often dressed like this when she danced:

At the time that Duncan was introducing dancing barefoot in loose, flowing tunics, everyone else was into rigid ballet technique, corseted costumes, and painful-to-wear pointe shoes. Duncan combined her love of Ancient Greece with Americans' love of freedom as she introduced natural movements such as skipping, plus “great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms.” 

Duncan was a maverick off the dance floor, too, but she faced great tragedies in her life. She had three children, but they all died in childhood. Her husband was mentally ill and committed suicide. Isadora Duncan herself died earlier than she should have – at age 50 – when her long, flowing scarf tangled in the spokes of the automobile she rode in, and her neck was broken.

The world always loves a good, gossipy story, and Duncan's life allowed plenty of such stories. But the world mostly remembers her as a dancer who earned fame and acclaim in Europe, and as a pioneer whose work led to an entirely new, much freer form: modern dance.

To this day, there is a dance company
carrying on Duncan's work.
Here is a sample of some of this natural, modern movement. Note: this is a pretty old video, but I'm sure it was filmed decades after Duncan died.

This video clip, I believe, offers some very early motion picture footage of Duncan herself. 

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