by Valerie Durham
1. Anybody Can Do It.
Many audience members after watching a performance of Duncan choreography often comment, “I could do that.” And while one of Duncan Dance’s most beautiful gifts is its ability to inspire and empower each individual on a personal level with its ease and simplicity, there is nothing “easy” about Duncan Dance.
The Duncan art form is based in the free-flow and organic movements of humanity’s universal activities: walking, running, kneeling, reclining, skipping, leaping. It is a crafted study and artistic rendering of the human soul. Lines are pure and simple. Gestures and movements are stripped of all artifice. Every kink, every stiffness, every habitual tick that invades the everyday person’s body, must be trained out of the Duncan Dancer, leaving nothing but absolute purity of expression.
When Michaelangelo sculpted David, he chipped away every protrusion, smoothed every excess and refined every detail to reveal only the pure beauty of that standing figure. So too does a Duncan Dancer study and train to dance only the most essential, only the most beautiful, only the most pure. The result in what you see -- ease, grace, passion, expressiveness -- looks easy only because Duncan Dancers work so hard to find and express the truth of each movement.
2. Isadora Improvised All Her Dancing; There Is No Choreography.
From all reports, Isadora was a marvel on the stage. In performance she was unlike any other, enrapturing her audiences with her new form of dance. She was the first to perform to pieces of music not expressly written for dance, shocking much of the art world. Isadora insisted that her dance was like a visual manifestation of the entire orchestra – her legs expressed the rhythm and her upper body the melody.
Isadora’s technique involves a sense of complete harmony with, even a slight reaction to, the music. Duncan instructors often urge dancers to hear the music, then move; if anything, “be late.”
In addition to her seeming “reaction” to the music (a Duncan Dancer is always completely in tune with the music, and times her movements to be harmonious), Isadora used in particular the focus of the eyes and the solar plexus, to initiate movement. Therefore, she would look, breathe and then move, creating the impression that she had just had the idea to move a particular direction, and her movement would be so harmonious with the music, it looked and felt like the music had filled her and she had been half-carried and had half-driven the music across the stage in her movements and gestures.
3. There Is No Technique.
Partially as a result of the improvisational feel of her choreography, and partially due to her sudden death without having established a permanent school, many dancers, choreographers and art lovers of today believe there is no technique to Duncan Dance. This falsehood is compounded by the practice of many Duncan devotees (not Duncan Dancers) who embrace the “freedom” of Duncan Dance, without the discipline, without the technique. These are the performers who skip about a stage, wildly flinging arms, feeling very free themselves, but in doing so, do not convey any feelings of freedom (or gravity, movement, rage, sadness, lightness, swing, lift, etc.) to the audience.
Isadora studied the effect of each movement. She spent long hours in the studio, hands folded over her breast, waiting for the inspiration for movement. She found it in the solar plexus as the internal motor of movement. From there (in some accounts, even from childhood), Isadora studied the “how” of all movements, lifting the leg from the ground, reclining, sitting in a chair, rising from the ground, leaping. She watched waves in the ocean, trees swaying in the breeze, the flight of insects, the movements of animals to learn the most natural ways of moving.
Isadora also studied Greek and Renaissance art, including paintings, friezes, sculpture, pottery, to achieve the natural, weighted, strong movements of the Greek figure. She considered the Greek ideal to be the most beautiful because it was the most natural. Her dancing was not “Greek,” it was that the Greeks were the closest to having it “right.”
The Duncan Dancer goes through rigorous training to achieve the Duncan technique. In addition to artistic expression, the livening of the eyes and hands, the Duncan Dancer must learn to initiate all movement from the chest. The end of each movement leads into the beginning of the next – a movement never “ends.”
The foot and calf are extremely important in the Duncan technique. The Duncan Dancer must be able to dance and work through all range of motion, from the demi plie through relevee, not hitting a “position” as in ballet, but working through all the infinite positions between the two extremes. The foot leaves the earth with a natural “peeling” away, not a forced action of pointing or flexing. As the leg/knee is lifted, the foot naturally peels away from the earth. The faster the leg pushes or lifts away from the earth, the more pointed a foot may become, but not through a deliberate action to achieve a pointed foot, but rather to provide the related, necessary amount of force to push away from the earth and gravity.
Another example of the Duncan technique is the lift of the arms. Again, gravity and weight are extremely important in the Duncan technique, and the technique is shaped to show the pull away and the give in to gravity. One arm movement lifts from the upper part of the arm, elbows hooked toward the sky, lower arms and hands dripping toward the earth. At about mid-height, the chest lifts against the drip of the lower arms, and then the arms are free to lift all the way up. Arms are always only lifted in concert with the corresponding lift of the chest, the face and the eyes. All lines – arms, eye focus, chest and face – should be parallel. This creates a more powerful image of “up” than just reaching one’s arms up.
The Duncan technique is taught around the world, and the barre, floor and moving exercises established by Isadora in her various schools show up in classes taught by teachers who have never met. A true Duncan Dancer is clearly identified by the freedom and lift of her chest, the weighted power of her arms and legs, the precise and expressive use of music.
4. When Isadora Died, Her Dancing Died With Her.
Isadora died unexpectedly, in a dreadful car accident, at the age of 49 in 1927. At the time, she was relatively estranged from her six adopted daughters (who had formed the troupe of dancers who performed with her) and did not have an established school. Isadora had established several schools during her career, and a school of dance and life for all children, all people, was one of her greatest aims.
Some of Isadora’s choreographies (and obviously her incomparable genius) died with her, but three of the six “Isadorables” – Irma, Anna and Therese – knew many of Isadora’s choreographies, had been performing them for many years and had been studying with Isadora and teaching her technique for many years as well. These three took up the call to continue Isadora’s work. Irma had a troupe of dancers from Moscow, Anna and Therese began teaching classes and performing in earnest, with the great responsibility of making sure the remaining choreographies, technique and exercises were preserved and passed down.
The dancers who studied under Irma, Anna and Therese have passed along Duncan’s choreographies and techniques, keeping this artistry alive. Today, many more dancers are becoming involved with Duncan Dance, and rather than just “preserving” the work, as has been the almost desperate mission since Isadora’s death, now new and original applications and investigations of the technique are underway. Experimentation with new music and new movements are exposing Duncan Dance as not merely a historical preservation project, but a viable, relevant and expressive dance form for today’s world.
5. Other Than for Historical Preservation, Duncan Dance Isn’t Relevant Today.
The growing number of well-trained Duncan Dancers is challenging this myth today. Duncan Dancers, long known for only recreating existing Duncan choreographies, are experimenting with new contemporary music and expanding on the movements initially created by Isadora over 80 - 100 years ago.
There is an overwhelming beauty in the pure expression presented in Duncan Dance that is particularly healing in today’s modern world. The themes of nature and universal humanity that permeate each gesture of the Duncan technique counterbalance the hard lines, rigid expressions and abstract (often negative) concepts so frequently presented in contemporary dance and art.
Additionally, Duncan Dance was and still is an empowering movement style for women. The current technique is inherently feminine, and yet it is strong and expressive and powerful. It expresses weight and heft. As Duncan Dance progresses, however, it will be adapted to include more male influence for male dancers (Isadora initially took men into her schools, but when funding was limited, kept only the girls because their need for this opportunity was so much greater during that time).
Overall, the Isadora Duncan technique is innately hopeful and uplifting, something that is applicable and desirable in every age, for all cultures, and all people.
6. Duncan Dancing is All Skipping and Running.
Isadora used the general locomotive movements of humanity – walking, skipping, leaping, running, sliding, hopping – in the construction of her dances. Not only did they present the oneness of human movement, these locomotions provided that steady rhythm of the lower body against the more lyrical expression of the melody in the upper body.
Isadora also used social dancing, such as the waltz, polka, mazurka, as the lower body movement in appropriate pieces. The waltz, for example, for which she was very famous, is employed in tiny “jewel” dances like the Brahams’ Waltzes or magnificent showcases like Strauss’ Blue Danube. In these dances, the Duncan Dancer uses the waltz to move anywhere on the stage, the feet are constantly waltzing. The choreography will employ the waltz jump, a lifted leg, a leap, back, forward and side waltzing, as required by the music.
Isadora crafted very specific movements to express the music of her chosen dance pieces. Although some of the choreographies contained elements from her technique (the sway or skip jump, for example), these were executed to the music of the choreographed piece, thereby demanding that the movement be executed differently because the music to which it is danced is different. Therefore, the “sway” in the Scherzo movement of Schubert’s Great Symphony is entirely different than the sway in the Chopin “Line Mazurka.”
7. Duncan Dance Isn’t for “Real” Dancers.
Because of its perceived simplicity, and because of the tainted reputation caused by Duncan devotees rather than Duncan Dancers, many mainstream dancers regard Duncan Dance with an opinion of irrelevance or even disdain.
However, most of these dancers might be shocked to learn that all the best dancers in the world, are in fact, Duncan Dancers! This is because the most exciting, the most watchable, the most talented dancers move from the solar plexus. They initiate movement from within their souls, from the breath, before they actually move the extremities. The best dancers always look like they are creating the dance in that very moment, not executing steps because the choreographer told them to.
This is the essence of Duncan Dance. All dancers, whether studying ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, or other forms of modern, would be well served to study Duncan Dance, at least in a supplementary role, the way they take yoga or pilates or floor barre, to learn the essence of dancing, of musicality, of artistry. Duncan Dance can help all dancers find meaning behind a movement, vitality expressed in every cell as they dance, which will take any student of dance from mere “mover” to actual “Dancer.”
Even better, more and more dancers can begin to discover Duncan Dance as a viable dance form for its own sake, with the technique and choreography more codified, and the opportunities for participating in new choreography by Duncan masters more available.
8. Duncan was a Bolshevik who hated America.
Isadora was born in Oakland, California on May 26, 1877. She was first and foremost a Californian – she loved the ocean and tall trees and mountains and free spaces of 19th century California. It was the culture of California, along with the Greek revival movement, that helped establish her quest for the discovery of free and natural dance as a high art form.
But Isadora's relationship with America was always love-hate. The American audiences, except for a brief period in the mid 1910s, basically rejected her or treated her as a novelty act. It was Europe that first accepted and acknowledged her great artistic genius and contribution not only to dance but to art, and she made Europe home for mainly that reason. When money dried up in Europe after WWI, she turned to Russia, which she believed would build the utopia of artistry and camaraderie that the philosophy heralded, for help to establish the school of dance she longed for.
Although in certain circles Isadora's outrageous statements about “being red” would hardly be seen as negative, Isadora's support of the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet Russia in most cases have more to do with a romantic notion of the Marxist philosophy rampant in artistic circles during her time, and also her own bitter feelings of rejection from the America she loved, than an actual adherence to the politics of communism.
Had she lived longer, Isadora may have rejected the communist philosophy altogether, after witnessing the millions of deaths and essentially institutionalized destitution of all but the most elite in the Soviet Union's 70 year existence. She had already begun to see the crumbling of the communist promise, when funding for her Moscow school was pulled less than 6 months after she arrived to establish it.
9. Isadora Was an Infamous Personality, Not a True or Relevant Artist.
Isadora was an infamous personality in her day, causing shockwaves in her manner of dress (she rejected the binding corsets and high-topped shoes of the Victoria/Edwardian era), her attitude about motherhood and marriage (she had three children out of wedlock), her notorious love affairs, Bolshevik overtones and wild lifestyle (drinking and parties galore!).
Even today, you mention Isadora and most people are familiar with her tragic and bizarre manner of death – being strangled and dragged by her scarf when it caught in the wheels of a convertible sports car in Nice, France in 1927.
But did Isadora truly make any lasting artistic contributions? Absolutely.
While many other dancers were simultaneously working to bring forth “modern dance,” Isadora is rightfully known as the “mother of modern dance.” She more than any other brought dance back from its lowly state of opinion in the art world to a place among the “high arts” of literature, painting, music, poetry, sculpture and the like.
She managed this realignment of dance in the art world through several methods. First, by choreographing and performing to concert music (previous to Isadora, dancers only danced to music specifically written for the dance. Isadora was the first to take concert music and choreograph to it, shocking critics and audiences at the time.), Isadora was able to associate dance with the greatest music in the world, by masters such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms and Wagner. In addition, the ancient Greek and Renaissance overtones to her technique put into the minds of society at the time, that dance was as lofty as the Greek and Renaissance art that was so popular at the time.
Isadora also wrote and lectured extensively about the art of the dance. In fact her magnum opus, “The Art of the Dance” is a wonderful resource for all dancers of all disciplines as it discusses the theories and impulses and importances of dance. In her philosophy of dance, Isadora also included the study of other art forms – literature and poetry, painting and sculpture certainly, drama – as well as politics and science. Isadora revolutionized the dancer from mere entertainer to expressive and intellectual artist.
Isadora had direct effect on the dance world. For example, her visit to Russia in 1904 was a coalescing, catalyzing effect on the formation of the Ballet Russes. Isadora's use of music, flow of movements, staging and costuming propelled Fokine to bring together his mounting ideas to create the great Russian ballet.
After Isadora, dancers were free to dance to the music of their choice, to dance about the condition of the human spirit, to express themselves, not just a storyline. Movements become more innovative, less stilted and mimed. And much as Balanchine criticized Isadora when he finally saw her dance, late in her life, his choreography was profoundly influenced by the artistic breakthroughs Isadora made throughout her career. And as much as Isadora criticized ballet, ballet has grown tremendously in its breadth of expression, somewhat due to her early criticisms and example.
After Isadora, the three “Bs” of dance during her day – Ballet, Ballroom, Burlesque – gave way to a greater expression of dance.
Isadora was also a beloved muse for and peer of other artists and notables of her day. Rodin, Cocteau, Walkowitz, Craig, Rummel, Stanislavsky, Duse, Stein, Esenin and many many others were artists and great thinkers that she communed with, learned from and influenced. She was the subject of countless paintings, sketches and poems, as well as scultpure.
But her greatest artistic contribution was to the art of dance, lifting it to a higher plane of artistry and expression.
10. Duncan Dancers are fat and out-of-shape.
One of the glories of Duncan Dance is that there is no “perfect” body-type, as in so many other disciplines of dance. No dancer is rejected for being too tall, too short, too long-torsoed, too short-armed, too bony, too fat. It's how you dance that counts. It's your openness, your ability to convey and connect with the music, your dynamics, subtleties, and expressiveness that matter in the end.
That being said, it is vital to note that today's Duncan Dancer is dramatically different than those of the previous generations leading back to Isadora. As a society our concept of fitness and of beauty (rightly or wrongly) is different. Duncan Dancers of today have trained in a variety of ways, and maintain excellent fitness standards to allow them to bring to life not only Isadora's classic repertoire, but new choreographies and developments in this beautiful technique as well.