The Kennedy Center

Isadora Duncan


Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in 1877 and was the youngest of four children. At an early age, Duncan revolted against ballet lessons and developed a style of dancing that expressed spontaneity and freedom of movement. This was also the same approach she used to interpret the music of great composers. In 1897 she traveled to London with Augustin Daly’s theater company, and returned to New York later only to quit the Daly Company. She and her family subsequently set off for England.

Duncan’s career gathered momentum when she was invited to perform at private receptions in London. Dancing barefoot in a tunic, she charmed her audiences and soon was performing with much acclaim in theaters and concert halls all over Europe. Contemporary accounts of her dancing often mention her scanty or flimsy costumes, her bare legs and feet and her scandalous behavior. Nevertheless audiences often were deeply moved by Duncan’s powerfully expressive dancing. She openly celebrated the relationship between body and emotions.

Duncan revolutionized the world of classical dance based on the natural movements jumping, running, skipping and standing that were considered spontaneous and self-expressive. She eliminated the close-fitting leotards and toe shoes used by ballet dancers, and replaced them with flowing Grecian robes and bare feet. She had little recognition in the United States, and gained her greatest renown through performances in Paris and other parts of Europe.

In 1905 Duncan made a visit to Russia where she drew much praise for her dancing and although her methods and those of traditional ballet were incompatible, she exerted a powerful influence on the development of modern dance as an expressive medium. Her style was spontaneity, not form. It was her wish to express emotion through movement and to express the whole range of human feeling. She did not just dance to music, but she integrated music and dance into a coherent whole.

Duncan died in a tragic accident at the age of 50. Her impact on the dance succeeded so well that pieces that were unthinkable as dance vehicles a hundred years ago are now the staples of ballet and modern dance.
Isadora Duncan