A great topic is inexhaustible! Twenty years after publishing my book on Isadora Duncan, I’m still finding fresh ways to write about the dancer’s extraordinary life and art. In honor of Duncan’s birthday, I wrote an essay inquiring into the origins of her grand ambition. Thanks to Houston Woman magazine for publishing it, and I share it with you here:
From all accounts (and I spent five years researching them), the modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan never, ever doubted that she would revolutionize the world. Before she was even born, Isadora’s mother was certain that her child would be extraordinary. Mind you, this may have been the side effect of an eccentric pregnancy diet. “She could take no food,” Isadora claimed in her memoir, “except iced oysters and iced champagne.”
This month we celebrate Isadora’s birthday: May 26, 1877. If only the rest of us were born with such self-confidence.
Isadora inspired generations of women to speak the language of “interpretive dance” in chiffon tunics and bare feet. From her youngest years, she aimed to create a world made more beautiful and moral by her flowing, expressive dance. “I see America dancing,” she wrote, “standing with one foot poised on the highest point of the Rockies, her two hands stretched out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, her fine head tossed to the sky, her forehead shining with a Crown of a million stars.”
Isadora was certain that she could take and hold an entire stage all by herself, as a soloist, when theater had only ever featured masses of ballet dancers or lines of can-can girls. She was charismatic and persuasive, fearless about introducing herself, an unknown, to an artistic luminary like Auguste Rodin. She learned at a very young age that, if she wasn’t sure of what she was doing, she made it up until she figured it out.
Isadora deployed ambition like a religion. She was a zealot, refusing any setback or obstacle. Her motto: “sans limites.”
The young Isadora was an unlikely bet to become a self-made global celebrity. She was born the youngest of four children to an impoverished, itinerant, divorced mother — at a time when divorced women looked forward to few options and even less respect.
But as Isadora experienced it, her San Francisco childhood was also artistic, and gloriously free. After the unpleasantness of a school day, she went to dance in the woods and by the sea. In the evenings, her mother played piano and read poetry aloud, and Aunt Augusta recited “Hamlet” in black velvet britches.
It’s nearly 20 years now since I published my book on Isadora, and I still wonder: How did she get all that chutzpah?
Psychiatrist Anna Fels researched the flip side of this question when she found herself meeting with too many women clients who, despite their achievements, felt depressed. In her resulting book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, she reported that ambition requires two things: mastery and recognition. Mastery, she found, was in no short supply for professional women. It was the lack of recognition that was chipping away at their ambition. At every age and every turn, Fels found, boys and men were more likely to be given recognition by their family, teachers, and employers. No wonder her clients burned out or gave up.
Not so for Isadora. As I recently re-read her memoir, My Life, with this fresh curiosity, I realized that, during her formative years, despite the lack of money and formal education, she was surrounded by women who saw her talent and encouraged her ambition. They provided the aspiring “Artiste” with the recognition she needed to see herself as extraordinary.
First, there was the friend of the family who “incited me to ambitious dreams.” This elderly woman had lived in Vienna, and she so admired Isadora’s dancing that she exclaimed her to be “the second Fanny Elssler.” The Viennese-born Elssler was the most famous of the Romantic ballerinas to tour America in the mid-19th century, and although Isadora expressly rejected the physical and psychic strictures of ballet, she eagerly embraced this model of artistic excellence and international fame.
Then there was the local librarian, Ina Coolbrith (California’s first poet laureate). “She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books.” Books were the young dancer’s imaginary entrée into the larger world. “Under the influence of the books I had read, I planned to leave San Francisco and go abroad.”
Most of all, it was Isadora’s mother who indulged her intimations of grandeur, “ready to follow me anywhere,” Isadora wrote. “My art was already in me when I was a little girl, and it was owing to the heroic and adventurous spirit of my mother that it was not stifled.” When the 18-year-old Isadora insisted that, for the sake of her art, she must leave San Francisco for Chicago, Dora Duncan sold off what remained of her mother’s jewels to accompany her daughter. The entire Duncan clan would forever revolve around Isadora, their shining star.
It’s no surprise that Isadora died as ambitiously as she lived, in a Bugatti sports car. As she sped away, driven by a handsome young man, she waved goodbye – “Farewell, my friends, I’m off to glory!”