Iconic dancer, trailblazer, and a passionate artistic spirit, Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, in 1878. Although poverty-stricken, her childhood was filled with art, music, dance, poetry, and Shakespeare, which she was introduced to by her mother.
After her parents divorced in 1880, her mother took her and her three other siblings to Oakland, becoming a music teacher and pianist to earn money. Rebellious from a very early age, Isadora dropped out of school because she felt her individuality was constricted there.
Duncan, along with her sister, Elizabeth, started giving dancing lessons at the young age of 14, teaching the local children forms of dance that were years ahead of their time.
Duncan was a dreamer who loved beauty and poetry, and had a natural sense of rhythm. The early divorce of her parents, and the strife it entailed, shaped her ideas about the institution of marriage, and when she was just 12 years old she decided that she would never marry.
As a teenager, Duncan went to Chicago and then to New York accompanied by a few of her family members. Here, she worked and performed in a number of productions like Midsummer Night's Dream, Pygmalion, and a few vaudeville shows, without much success. Her ideas about dancing were too radical for those times.
Dressed in flowing Grecian tunics, scarves that clung to her form, she danced barefoot with her hair loosened. Duncan devised a unique style of dancing that included a lot of improvisation, going against the stiff styles of her time. Her inspiration came from the classics, particularly Greek mythology, along with folk dances, natural forces, and nature.
She emphasized the human form, emotion, and creativity, rejecting the traditional steps of ballet. She termed classical ballet―full of rigid rules about the formation and posture―as unnatural and, therefore, ugly. Duncan infused a new athleticism into her dancing by including leaping, jumping, running, tossing, and skipping.
It was only after she went to London that audiences began accepting her dancing style. She gave performances in the private salons of the high-society women. Her popularity gradually started growing, and she began giving performances on European stages.
Almost single-handedly, Duncan broke the conventional mores of dancing, imbibing into it a new vitality, by using her body to generate force in all the movements she created. Duncan is recognized today as the pioneer of modern dance.
All through her career, she had a vision of educating young children, particularly girls, and providing them a grounding of culture, art, and spirituality, along with conventional academic studies. She founded three schools, the first in Germany, at Grunewald.
Here, she taught a group of students who later came to be known as the famous 'Isadorables'; they performed with Duncan and also independently. The second school was situated outside Paris which did not last long. The third was built in Moscow soon after the Russian Revolution.
The financial requirements of running the schools forced Duncan to spend time away touring and performing, which meant that she had to leave the charge of her students and schools to her sister, Elizabeth.
Always flouting conventional mores, both in her professional life as well as her personal life, Duncan had two children with two of her lovers―the first a girl named Deidre with Gordon Craig, and the second a boy called Patrick with Paris Singer. However, both the children drowned along with their governess in 1913.
Duncan found the years that followed extremely difficult, putting a temporary stop to her dancing. However, with time, she found a renewed strength to continue with her artistic life, her dancing, and her schools.
The final tragedy occurred in 1927, when she was killed in a car accident. The scarf that she habitually wore got entangled in the open spokes of the wheels, strangling and killing her on the spot. She was 50 years of age. But, Duncan's spirit continues to live on in the lasting legacy she left behind in dance and in the cultural and societal norms.