Isadora Duncan Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."