DUNCAN, ISADORA (1877-1927). A dancer and writer, Isadora Duncan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. Unhappy at school, she was educated largely by her freethinking mother, whose instruction focused on classical music and the great poets; notably, all four Duncan children pursued careers in theater. By her early teens, Duncan had discovered the fundamentals of what would later be called modern dance, based
not on the restrictive traditions of ballet but on free, natural, expressive movements.
Universally regarded as revolutionary, Duncan’s new dance was derided by conservative critics but hailed as a liberating force by the rising generation of avant-garde poets and painters as well as by political radicals. As has so often been the case of American innovators in the arts, she was famous throughout Europe before attaining even modest recognition in her native land.
Her American admirers and supporters covered the entire spectrum of the Left, and included Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and John Sloan of the Masses group, the poets of the Yiddish di Yunge, anarchist Alexander Berkman, single-taxer Bolton Hall, socialist-feminist Antoinette Konikow, and John Collier, lifelong agitator on behalf of American Indians.
Although in later years she liked to boast that she had been a revolutionist since the age of five, her social radicalism deepened appreciably in the course of a performance tour of Russia in the wake of the 1905 Revolution. From the 1910s on she was world-renowned not only as a dancer but as a living symbol of revolt, revolution, and women’s emancipation. Duncan-style dance was taught at the Socialist Party's Rand School in New
York and at the anarchists’ Modern School at Stelton, New Jersey.
An outspoken defender of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in spring 1921 she accepted the invitation of Soviet diplomat Leonid Krasin to establish her school of dance in Moscow. Warmly welcomed by Commissar of Fine Arts Anatoly Lunacharsky, Duncan always insisted that her several years’ Soviet sojourn, marred though it was by frustrations and disappointments, was the most exciting and rewarding period of her life. In the Soviet
Union she choreographed dances for the workers’ hymn “The Internationale,” as well as for people's songs such as Ireland’s “Wearin’ 0’ the Green” and France’s “Carmagnole,” and two funeral marches for Lenin.
Duncan lived most of her later life in Europe and the Soviet Union, but returned to the United States many times for extended tours, often giving benefits for Russian famine-relief and other Left causes. Her last tour, in fall/winter 1922-1923, with her companion, Soviet poet Sergei Esenin, was a disaster. A grueling interrogation at Ellis Island because of her pro-Bolshevik views set the stage for a campaign of vilification against
her, not only by the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, and evangelist Billy Sunday, but also by editors of America’s largest dailies, who denounced her on their front pages as a dangerous “agent of Moscow.” In many cities her performances were canceled. Finally, deprived of her U.S. citizenship, Duncan fled what she called the “narrow-minded, hypocritical, loathsome United States,” vowing never to return. Persecution by reactionaries did not diminish her revolutionary ardor, however; she
remained steadfastly on the far Left. In the last years of her life, her Paris apartment served as unofficial headquarters of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. Isadora Duncan’s epoch-making achievements as a dancer have unfortunately tended to obscure her considerable qualities as a thinker and writer. Her posthumously published My Life, probably the most widely read autobiography in English after Benjamin Franklin’s, reflects the originality and boldness characteristic of all her essays and speeches. One
of the most inspired writers on dance, she was also a penetrating critic of modern education, the situation of women in patriarchal society, and other aspects of repressive culture.