Isadora Duncan in La Marseillaise, 1916.  Photo by Arnold Genthe. Isadora Duncan in La Marseillaise, 1916. Ann Cooper Albright writes, "Duncan was famous for being able to galvanize space in her solo performances." (Photo by Arnold Genthe.)


The founding mother of American modern dance, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was born in San Francisco. Largely self-taught, she presented her first recital programs in 1898; by 1900 she was in Europe, where she would spend most of her remaining life and win greatest acceptance. Duncan carried out her "revolution" on many fronts. She discarded the corset, slippers, and tutu of conventional ballet dress, adopting instead tunics that freed the body and revealed its movement. She used music by Chopin, Beethoven, Gluck, Wagner, and other composers of the first rank. She danced on concert stages and in opera houses. She spoke of her dancing not as entertainment but as art, with a high moral purpose. Most of all, she insisted upon the essence of dance as movement. Her vocabulary was simple but performed with a musicality, dynamic subtlety, and charisma that made it powerfully expressive. Although Duncan's last U.S. tour ended in scandal, her unconventional lifestyle, dramatic death (her scarf caught on the wheel of a moving car and broke her neck), and outspoken memoirs made her an American icon.

Learn more in Isadora Duncan, an essay by Ann Cooper Albright.


A 1904 photograph of Isadora Duncan. Photograph by Hof-Atelier Elvira. A 1904 photograph of Isadora Duncan. The costumes she wore, inspired by classical drapery, were considered shocking at the time for the way they revealed her body. (Photograph by Hof-Atelier Elvira; from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)