Isadora Duncan: an artiste for social change


Isadora Duncan loved to dance. She would say she began dancing while in her mother’s womb. In her words, “Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and iced champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, ‘In my mother’s womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne — the food of Aphrodite.’”

Music became a part of Isadora’s life at a young age. Her mother, who was a music teacher, would play for hours at night. And it was here in the evenings, in a home in San Francisco around the early 1880s, that Isadora began to dance, using her mother’s piano as a stage. By her teen years, this evening joy became work, as Isadora dropped out of school to teach wealthy San Franciscans.

Dancing in this age was usually either the waltz or pirouetting. Neither appealed to Isadora. For her, dance was free-flowing movement without restrictions and corsets. It was about expression. “I have always believed that art should be free from rules and regulations, and that the dancer should be guided by the impulses of the soul,” she would say. She rejected being called a dancer. Instead, she went by the title of “artiste.”

Black and white photograph of Isadora Duncan in a long, flowing gown, standing with a slightly bent posture. Her head is tilted downwards, and her hair is styled in a soft, short bob. The background is plain and nondescript, highlighting her ethereal figure.
Isadora Duncan, circa 1920

But there was a dance philosophy for Isadora that was greater than self. Isadora believed that changing your outward behavior could improve your inner being. That character and personality were malleable. Isadora thus “conceived dance not as entertainment, but as social betterment.”

Isadora must have been a splendor, a joy to the eyes of those seeking freedom and social change. She embodied what they felt and wanted, a more modern life without suffocating and often arbitrary social rules and for feelings of optimism. That Isadora gave audiences. And as one person commented about watching her perform, “she was an event not only in art, but in the history of life.”

While she brought much joy to people, she experienced much tragedy in her life. Two of her children died in a car accident in 1913, another child shortly after birth, and her husband physically abused her. But through the struggles, Isadora danced and taught dancing worldwide throughout her life.

When asked how people might remember her, she said, “I freed women from corsets.” Isadora passed away at the age of fifty in 1927.

  • Kirstein, Lincoln. “Isadora Duncan.” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, vol. 9, no. 2, 1941, pp. 10–11. JSTOR Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.)
  • Francis, Elizabeth. “From Event to Monument: Modernism, Feminism and Isadora Duncan.” American Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 1994, pp. 25–45. JSTOR Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.
  • Daly, Ann. “Isadora Duncan’s Dance Theory.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 1994, pp. 24–31. JSTOR Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.
  • Genthe, Arnold, photographer. Isadora Duncan dancer. Between 1915 and 1923. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.