There was never another like Isadora Duncan

Even if you don’t like ballet or dance in general, you’ve probably heard the name, Isadora Duncan. The American artist created what we call contemporary dance, breaking the shackles of classical ballet and enabling creative freedom that is disruptive to this day. She said she wanted to “rediscover the beautiful and rhythmic movements of the human body”. And she did. However, on the 14th of September of 2022, it’s the 95th anniversary of her death in Nice, where she was accidentally hanged when the scarf around her neck got tangled in the wheel of her car. An unbelievable farewell to a woman who changed the world.

Isadora Duncan defined what we call a free soul. Any restriction – behavioral or physical – was abhorred and rejected by her from the beginning. Born in San Francisco, she was wealthy until her parents divorced, when they began to struggle. She only studied until the age of 10, when she stopped attending school because it was “embarrassing”. To help with the housework, Isadora and her sister, Elizabeth, taught dance to the local children, and already demonstrating what would become her legacy, the dancer was not restricted to the barre or classical steps, but encouraged improvisation and costumes, or, as she said, dancing “anything beautiful that came to [her] head”.

Art seemed to be Isadora’s vocation, she loved movement, but when at 19 she joined Augustin Daly‘s theater company in New York, she soon became disillusioned. She dreamed of a different environment, with less hierarchy and different from the popular pantomimes of the time. Freedom has always been her oxygen.

With this thirst to find space and something new, she moved to London where she performed in the homes of the rich and noble. Her inspiration came from the Greek bas-relief figures she saw in museums. It didn’t take long for her to have enough money to rent her own studio and her performances moved to theaters, where she had proper space. Isadora quickly became famous in Europe, especially in France, because of her innovative and daring technique.

Without shoes (she danced barefoot), stockings or tutus, the American emphasized natural movements, a 180° contrast from the traditional school of ballet. For her, dancing was a sacred expression, never purely entertainment. Emotion commanded the steps, not technique. Her movements imitated classical Greek art as well as folk and social dances, and even athletics because her choreography alternated jumping, running, and pirouetting, with arms outstretched and head held high. No ballet steps en dehors, no plie or stretched pointe. The beauty was in the naturalism of the gesture. Even more, she argued that each movement was connected, one was born from what preceded it, as well as led to the next in an organic way, never calculated or rehearsed. Without a doubt, she created modern dance.

“I spent long days and nights in the studio looking for that dance that could be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of body movement,” she said.

In addition to movements, Isadora also innovated in fashion. In order to have the bodily freedom that he defended, his clothes were usually tunics imitating white Greek clothes. Sensual, free, and ethereal. The public went crazy.

But Isadora Duncan had a life mission. In line with her philosophy, performing and touring took her away from the schools she opened to share her vision. The first, in Germany, became what they called the birthplace of the “Isadorables” who would continue their legacy. The second, in Paris, was closed when the war began. That’s why the dancer ended up returning to her country, where she settled in New York.

With such a different mind, Isadora soon became a sympathizer of the communist movement and when she arrived in the Soviet Union, in 1921, she founded a school in Moscow. A few years later, falling out with the Soviet government that did not support her work as promised, she returned to Europe, along with her husband, the poet Sergei Yesenin, 18 years her junior. (The marriage was short-lived and Sergei would commit suicide just 2 years later).

Isadora’s personal life was as liberating as her dancing. She had three children without getting married, a scandal at the time. Tragedy seemed to surround her though, especially with car accidents. She lost her children when the vehicle carrying them crashed into the Seine and they all drowned. As early as the 1920s, Isadora was fluid, relating to both men and women openly.

The losses ended up contributing to a process of depression and excessive alcohol consumption. During her last years, living in France, accumulated debt and lost her audience. To earn money, she accepted, with great shame and revolt, writing her autobiography, My Life, which was published shortly after her death, in 1927.

Isadora’s death was so unexpected that to this day it is one of the most talked about, even 95 years later. On the night of September 14, 1927, in Nice, France, the ballerina went out to dinner with her friend, Mary Desti, and when they left the restaurant, it was cold. Mary wanted Isadora to wear a cape, but the artist insisted on keeping only the long silk scarf, hand-painted by Russian artist Roman Shatov, a gift she received from Mary herself. She wrapped part of it around her neck and left the rest fluttering, as she liked. Before getting into the convertible car that was waiting for her, she said goodbye saying “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I’m going to glory!”), although some have said that she actually said: “Je vais à l’amour” (“I’m going to love”), alluding that she would then go to sleep with the driver who accompanied her, Benoît Falchetto. After that, it happened in minutes.

As Benoît started the car and drove off, the silk scarf, which was hanging around Isadora’s neck, tangled itself around the rear wheels. Mary Desti saw it and still shouted to try to warn them, but it was too late. With the force of the pull, Isadora was pulled back violently and broke her neck. She was taken to the hospital but died instantly.

News about the accident ranged from saying Isadora was pulled out of the car, having died on impact with the ground, to nearly being decapitated. The image that a loose fabric had contributed to her death has been much emphasized since then. Isadora Duncan was cremated and her ashes were scattered on her children’s graves in Paris, where there is a tombstone bearing her name and the title École du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (“School of Ballet of the Paris Opera”).

Several ballets and plays have been made in her honor, but in cinema, the most famous version is the 1968 film Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave and directed by Karel Reisz (he also directed The French Lieutenant’s Wife). Vanessa, who physically resembles Isadora, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role.

The truth is that almost 100 years later, Isadora Duncan remains modern and the symbol of freedom of spirit. A proof that she is a Goddess, her atypical name proves. Of Greek origin, Isidora or Isadora is the feminine version of the composition of words that forms Isidoro – Isis (the goddess) and dōron (a gift from) – that is, a gift from Isis. The goddess is associated with life, rebirth, and healing magic, as well as nurturer and protector. Above all, it was the Goddess who had power over her own destiny. To top it off, in current times, for Spanish languages ​​the name Isadora is linked to children with many ideas. Isadora Duncan’s mission was more than accomplished.

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