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This Week in History: the unlikely demise of Isadora Duncan

This week 89 years ago, bohemian dancer and advocate of free love Isadora Duncan was killed in an unlikely turn of events.

Described by Jack Anderson in 2008 as ‘the woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance’, Duncan is viewed through her dancing as a pioneer for female expression. Her bohemian flair and progressive style revolutionised the typically stiff-shoed ballet of the age, gaining her the adoration of the female audience. Performing during an era full of turmoil, Duncan’s barefoot, flowing choreography inspired vision in the fight for women’s rights.

Duncan led a life of stardom and catastrophe. From a young age she defied the norm, proclaiming ballet to be ‘artificial mechanical movement not worthy of the soul’. Travelling independently from Chicago and New York to Europe, she soon developed her own form of expression with Greek and Renaissance motifs. Devoted to her freedom, she swore never to marry but in 1913 saw the tragic death of her two children when their car rolled into the river Seine.

Pouring her energy into Communism, Duncan rose further to stun and inspire, eventually marrying to override the inevitable revocation of her American citizenship. But even the success of her art did not protect her from more misfortune when her husband first left her and then committed suicide three years later.

Having gained both popularity and criticism throughout her life, the news of her death was met with mixed feelings. On September 14th 1927, Duncan wore a statement Communist-red scarf in a new sports car alongside her supposed lover, despite being urged to wear more conventional travel wear. In a freak moment, the scarf caught the wind and became entangled in the spokes of the car’s wheels, pulling her from the car to die immediately from strangulation. While many were critical of her life – for instance, Gertrude Stein commented that ‘affectations can be dangerous’ – her legacy has lived on and she is still remembered as an artist of freedom and promoter of women’s rights.

Today, although none of the dance schools that Duncan founded have survived, the people’s adoration of her is proved through numerous artworks, books and films. Isadora Duncan and her story are featured in institutions such as the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Isadora Duncan Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Image: Raymond Duncan, Online Archive of California

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