Isadora Duncan Essay - Critical Essays

Duncan, Isadora


Isadora Duncan 1877(?)-1927

American dancer and autobiographer.

Considered a proto-feminist for her unconventional lifestyle and for the promotion of herself as a "liberated" woman, Duncan is best known as one of the originators of modern dance. She was also a teacher of dance and wrote on its techniques and cultural significance. Her autobiography, My Life (1927), is a revealing self-portrait of Duncan's artistic and emotional life.

Biographical Information

Duncan was born in San Francisco and raised by her mother. Duncan's father abandoned the family when she was still an infant, forcing her mother to support the children from her earnings as a music teacher. Allowed to leave school at the age of ten to pursue an interest in dancing, Duncan began her career in Chicago and then moved to New York. Her provocative dances shocked American sensibilities of the day, however, and in 1899 she left the United States for Europe, where her improvisational, free-spirited dance performances met with widespread approval. In the first two decades of the century Duncan successfully toured most of western and eastern Europe. She opened short-lived but influential dancing schools in France and Germany and became both a popular public personality and a critically respected innovator of modern dance. Because she danced in Russia before the revolution and had a decisive impact on the ballet styles of Mikhail Fokine and Sergei Diaghilev, Duncan was invited in 1921 by the government of the Soviet Union to found and run a school for dancing in that country. While in Russia she married poet Sergei Esenin and became a Soviet citizen. Esenin, who was twenty years younger than Duncan, committed suicide in 1924. Three years later, after having completed most of her autobiography, Duncan was killed in an automobile accident when the scarf she was wearing became entangled in the wheels of her car.

Major Works

Commentators note that Duncan's most significant accomplishments were her own celebrity and her dancing; and of the latter—save for still photographs of her on stage—there is no surviving record. My Life and The Art of the Dance (1928), which collects some of her essays and other writings, present her thoughts on dancing and on the creative process. Given its perfunctory glosses on certain aspects of her life, and Duncan's tendency to mythologize herself, My Life has been described as a somewhat inaccurate and self-serving memoir. The volume has also been criticized for its banal prose style; most critics agree with Linda Pannili that Duncan's "medium was movement, not words." Nonetheless, My Life is considered valuable for its glimpses of Duncan struggling with the demands of her art, her career, and her personal life. Despite the fact that her greatest successes were in Europe, Duncan believed that her dance was quintessentially American in nature. She felt that her movements were the direct expression of her soul. From this followed her teaching that women should learn to control their bodies and spirits through dance, gaining for themselves a measure of the autonomy enjoyed by men. Critics have likened her belief in self-reliance and inner inspiration to American transcendental romanticism. Pannili argues that Duncan was much like poet Walt Whitman in this regard—both "rejected the duality of the soul and body." Stuart Samuels concluded: "Isadora Duncan's death was mourned by many. She left no work that could be performed again, no school or teaching method, and few pupils, but with her new view of movement she had revolutionized dance."

Principal Works

*Der tanz der zukunft / The Dance of the Future (non-fiction) 1903

The Dance (nonfiction) 1909

My Life (autobiography) 1927

†The Art of the Dance (essays) 1928

‡"Your Isadora": The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig (letters) 1974

§Isadora Speaks (essays, lectures) 1981; also published as Selections: 1981, 1981

*This work was published in Germany in both German and English.

†This work was edited by Sheldon Cheney.

‡This work was edited by Francis Steegmuller.

§This work was edited by Franklin Rosemont.


Isadora Duncan (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in My Life, Liveright Publishing Corp., 1927, pp. 1-8.

[In the following introduction to My Life, Duncan explains her difficulties writing an autobiography.]

I confess that when it was first proposed to me I had a terror of writing [My Life]. Not that my life has not been more interesting than any novel and more adventurous than any cinema and, if really well written, would not be an epoch-making recital, but there's the rub—the writing of it!

It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realise that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence. How often have I contended that although one man might toil to the Equator and have tremendous exploits with lions and tigers, and try to write about it, yet fail, whereas another, who never left his verandah, might write of the killing of tigers in their jungles in a way to make his readers feel that he was actually there, until they can suffer his agony and apprehension, smell lions and hear the fearful approach of the rattle-snake. Nothing seems to exist save in the imagination, and all the marvellous things that have happened to me may lose their savour because I do not possess the pen of a Cervantes or even of a Casanova.

Then another thing. How can we write the truth about ourselves? Do we even know it? There is the vision our friends have of us; the vision we have of ourselves, and the vision our lover has of us. Also the vision our enemies have of us—and all these visions are different. I have good reason to know this, because I have had served to me with my morning coffee newspaper criticisms that declared I was beautiful as a goddess, and that I was a genius, and hardly had I finished smiling contentedly over this, than I picked up the next paper and read that I was without any talent, badly shaped and a perfect harpy.

I soon gave up reading criticisms of my work. I could not stipulate that I should only be given the good ones, and the bad were too depressing and provocatively homicidal. There was a critic in Berlin who pursued me with insults. Among other things he said that I was profoundly unmusical. One day I wrote imploring him to come and see me and I would convince him of his errors. He came and as he sat there, across the tea-table, I harangued him for an hour and a half about my theories of visional movement created from music. I noticed that he seemed most prosaic and stolid, but what was my uproarious dismay when he produced from his pocket a deafaphone and informed me he was quite deaf and even with his instrument could hardly hear the orchestra; although he sat in the first row of the stalls! This was the man whose views on myself had kept me awake at night!

So, if at each point of view others see in us a different person how are we to find in ourselves yet another personality of whom to write in this book? Is it to be the Chaste Madonna, or the Messalina, or the Magdalen, or the Blue Stocking? Where can I find the woman of all these adventures? It seems to me there was not one, but hundreds—and my soul soaring aloft, not really affected by any of them.

It has been well said that the first essential in writing about anything is that the writer should have no experience of the matter. To write of what one has actually experienced in words, is to find that they become most evasive. Memories are less tangible than dreams. Indeed, many dreams I have had seem more vivid than my actual memories. Life is a dream, and it is well that it is so, or who could survive some of its experiences? Such, for instance, as the sinking of the Lusitania. An experience like that should leave forever an expression of horror upon the faces of the men and women who went through it, whereas we meet them everywhere smiling and happy. It is only in romances that people undergo a sudden metamorphosis. In real life, even after the most terrible experiences, the main character remains exactly the same. Witness the number of Russian princes who, after losing everything they possessed, can be seen any evening at Montmartre supping as gaily as ever with chorus girls, just as they did before the war.

Any woman or man who would write the truth of their lives would write a great work. But no one has dared to write the truth of their lives. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this supreme sacrifice for Humanity—to unveil the truth of his soul, his most intimate actions and thoughts. The result is a great book. Walt Whitman gave his truth to America. At one time his book was forbidden to the mails as an "immoral book." This term seems absurd to us now. No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life. The autobiographies of most famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details and anecdotes which give no realisation of their real life. For the great moments of joy or agony they remain strangely silent.

My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one absolutely true movement. Words have a different meaning. Before the public which has thronged my representations I have had no hesitation. I have given them the most secret impulses of my soul. From the first I have only danced my life. As a child I danced the spontaneous joy of growing things. As an adolescent, I danced with joy turning to apprehension of the first realisation of tragic undercurrents; apprehension of the pitiless brutality and crushing progress of life.

When I was sixteen I danced before an audience without music. At the end some one suddenly cried from the audience, "It is Death and the Maiden," and the dance...

(The entire section is 2416 words.)

H. L. Mencken (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Two Enterprising Ladies," in American Mercury, Vol. XIII, No. 52, April, 1928, pp. 506-08.

[In the following review, Mencken excoriates Duncan's autobiography, her dancing, and her lifestyle.]

[My Life] I assume, was planned as the first of two volumes. It stops short with the fair (and, by that time, somewhat fat) author's invasion of Russia in 1921. That invasion turned out to be as ill-starred as Napoleon's, and she was presently back in France, where she was to die in 1927. What she has to say in her first volume about her curiously banal love affairs has made the book a roaring success, and it is now being read by all the flappers who...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Richard Guggenheimer (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "The Grace of Continuity," in Sight and Insight: A Prediction of New Perceptions in Art, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1945, pp. 32-41.

[In the following essay, Guggenheimer discusses Duncan's dancing in the context of poetry and painting]

One may well be reproached for introducing metaphysics into the study or the appreciation of works of art. Resentment frequently and understandably arises when a "pure emotion" expressed by some "intuitive" artist is subjected to tampering analysis at the hands of inquiring "intellectuals." This revulsion against dissection of the mysterious flower is similar to the pain one might feel if an inquisitive anatomist were to...

(The entire section is 3784 words.)

Franklin Rosemont (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Isadora Duncan," in Isadora Speaks by Isadora Duncan, edited by Franklin Rosemont, City Lights Books, 1981, pp. ix-xvii.

[In the following essay, Rosemont praises Duncan's revolutionary approach to her art and her life.]

Dancer, adventurer, revolutionist, ardent defender of the poetic spirit, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) has been one of the most enduring influences on twentieth century culture. Ironically, the very magnitude of her achievements as an artist, as well as the sheer excitement and tragedy of her life, have tended to dim our awareness of the originality, depth and boldness of her thought. But Isadora always was a thinker as well as a...

(The entire section is 2602 words.)

Lillian Loewenthal (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "La Presse," in The Search for Isadora: The Legend & Legacy of Isadora Duncan, Dance Horizons Books, 1993, pp. 129-53.

[In the following essay, Loewenthal recounts Duncan's reception by the press in Paris.]

The importance of France in the formulation of Isadora Duncan's artistic image was emphasized to me by artist Abraham Walkowitz during a conversation at his Brooklyn home. He spoke of France's esteem and respect for creative people; how "without France, Isadora would not be Isadora… the French created her and the French got the best out of her." No other country had the opportunity to accumulate the quantity and variety of documentation concerning...

(The entire section is 9994 words.)

Elizabeth Francis (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "From Event to Monument: Modernism, Feminism and Isadora Duncan," in American Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 25-45.

[In the following essay, Francis examines the ways in which Duncan contributed, through her theories about the female body in motion, to women's liberation and the modernist temperament.]

Many intellectuals and artists who saw Isadora Duncan dance came away believing they had experienced the liberation they longed for in their hopes and dreams for the twentieth century. Duncan returned to the Greek emphasis on balancing ecstasy and harmony and made it "excitingly modern," as one critic put it. Her performances from 1908 and throughout...

(The entire section is 7603 words.)

Melissa Ragona (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Ecstasy, Primitivism, Modernity: Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman," in American Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 47-64.

[In the following essay, Ragona explains Duncan's and Wigman's use of Nietzche's "Dionysian ecstasy" in their dance theories.]

Ecstatic movement is of a dichotomous nature: it can originate as an inner impulse directed outward, or exist as an outer force directed inward.

It can inspire a seemingly purposeless losing of the self or a surrendering that is determined by a distinct Other. In other words, such movement materializes as self-motivated rhythm or rhythm...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)

Further Reading


Blair, Fredrika. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986, 470 p.

Attempts to place Duncan's life in historical context and present hitherto unavailable information. Blair addresses neither Duncan's relationships with her students nor her years in Russia in much detail, stating that these areas have been covered adequately by others.

Flanner, Janet. "Isadora." An American in Paris: Profile of an Interlude between Two Wars, pp. 169-81. Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Recounts Duncan's last years in Paris.

McVay, Gordon. Isadora and Esenin. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980,...

(The entire section is 315 words.)