Isadora Duncan and the transformation of dance

By Elizabeth Blake


“To dance is to live!” – Isadora Duncan


Nicknamed ‘the barefoot dancer’, Isadora Duncan is widely regarded as the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’ and one of the most influential women in dance history. Inspirational, passionate and unconventional; she dedicated her life to raising the importance of dance from mere entertainment to a life enhancing art form and her revolutionary ideas on free expression transformed the dance world.


Isadora was born in 1877 and grew up in a world where ballet was the predominant dance form and the dancers’ bodies seemed to be constricted by their costumes – tight corsets, feet forced into pointe shoes, producing stiff, unnatural movement. She proclaimed herself ‘an enemy of the ballet’ and sought a much freer, more expressive way of moving, shocking audiences by dancing barefoot and barelegged in a diaphanous, Greek style tunic. She believed that the source of all movement should come from the soul, the true ‘centre’ of the body. This gave her freedom of movement through the torso, in direct contrast to the ballet dancer’s stance, where the upper body was held much more rigidly. This ground breaking use of movement flowing from the body’s centre was to become a key technique in Contemporary Dance as we know it today.


One of the other fundamental influences on the way Isadora transformed dance was her connection with nature, which she believed to be the inspiration for all art. She was born by the sea and the rhythm of the waves became the catalyst for her first idea of movement for the dance. She believed that this ‘wave pattern’ could be found in the movement of the earth, of all living creatures and even invisibly in sound and light (this was subsequently scientifically proven). Her dancing reflected this flowing motion, the forerunner of the fluidity we see in many of today’s dance moves.


Isadora’s dance was deeply spiritual and she believed that dance was far more than just entertainment. She was the first well known dancer to use her own, often dramatic and tragic, personal life story in her dances. She also used music by great composers, such as Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, previously only heard by audiences in musical concerts as ‘high art’. This left a profound and lasting impression on many of her audiences; a direct connection to their emotions, to the universal human condition, and an experience which they felt deeply but often could not explain. Although she divided opinion, some people branding her unfettered costume and movement immoral (on one occasion her stage floor was sabotaged with tacks which cut her bare feet and made them bleed) and her association with communist Russia dangerously radical, her legacy was to raise dance to an art form equal to music, painting, sculpture and literature.


Isadora’s message also resonates today in other ways. She believed in empowering women through the celebration of the strength and beauty of the female body in its natural form. This idea of female body positivity is becoming increasingly important in our modern world, where women are bombarded with unattainable images of female ‘beauty’. Through her belief that “the movement of the human body must correspond to its form ... and the movement of no two persons should be alike”, she encouraged people to celebrate their own uniqueness rather than merely imitating others. This is still an inspiring message for people in all walks of life today, where people are often quick to follow trends simply for their popularity.


Perhaps Isadora’s greatest passion was for the way dance could transform the lives and education of children. She believed that dance could bring both joy and self-awareness to children and that dance could teach them to understand poetry, philosophy and even mathematical equations. She encouraged children to go out into nature, to jump, laugh and play, to directly experience the world around them. She urged them to be free, but also taught them self-control. Another important message questions whether today’s children are losing this opportunity? How many children today sit at home, only experiencing the world through a digital screen and how many children don’t have the self-awareness to control their own behaviour? A recent government report recommended that children as young as 4 years old should be ‘taught’ to spend time outdoors in order to ward off stress and anxiety and protect their mental health. Perhaps dance should also be taught to more children, as Isadora had hoped.


Despite Isadora Duncan’s remarkable life being tragically cut short when she died in a car accident in 1927, her legacy to dance and the creative arts continues to this day. Isadora: I Dance What I Am is a new play with dance; written, choreographed and performed by Elizabeth Blake, which was selected to be part of Theatre Fest West 2019, a celebration of the best new performance in the South West. For booking details please email elizabeth.blake@phoenixarts.co.uk.