May 26, 1877, San Francisco, California
September 14, 1927, Nice, Paris
Country of Origin/Citizenship
Kind of Artist/Cultural Worker
Avant-Garde Movements Associated With
Date & Places of Overlap with Loy
1923–27, Natalie Barney’s salon, St. Germain-des-Près
A founder of modern dance and proponent of women’s freedoms, Isadora Duncan was born in 1877, the youngest of four children to Joseph Duncan and Mary Isadora Gray. After her father was tried for illegal banking schemes, her mother divorced him and raised her children in a free-thinking household that encouraged Duncan’s impulsive, revolutionary spirit. Even as a young girl Duncan rebelled against her classical ballet lessons in favor of spontaneous and expressive movement, her signature style throughout her career.
Duncan began performing in 1890 with her brother’s theater in San Francisco. In 1896, she joined the Chicago-based dance company of theater producer Augustin Daly, soon traveling with them to New York and London. She rose to international prominence while dancing privately in salons across Europe. Often performing as a one-woman corps de ballet and always in a “Greek” costume of draped silk or chiffon with bare feet and arms, she developed her own dance technique based on a simple vocabulary of steps, skips, glides, leaps, and pantomime that eschewed masculine movements. Famously androgynous, she defied traditional gender roles, bearing three children out of wedlock by three different men: a daughter with the stage designer Gordon Craig, a son with Paris Singer, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, and a third, who lived only briefly, with a passing acquaintance Romano Romanelli. Choreographer Agnes de Mille wrote that, when young, Duncan danced with grace; when older, with grief, following the death of her children who drowned in a car crash in the Seine in 1913 (Life into Art 10).
From 1907 to 1910 at the Caffè Giubbe Rosse in Florence, Mina Loy occasionally crossed paths with Duncan and Craig, supposedly the most conceited man Loy ever met. Loy crossed paths with Duncan in Berlin in 1921, and Loy and Duncan both frequented writer Natalie Barney’s Paris salon between 1923 and 1927. Hoping to urbanize her daughter Joella’s provincial sensibilities, Loy enrolled her in the Duncan school at Potsdam directed by Isadora’s sister Elizabeth, although Joella did not take to the lessons (Burke 313).
Loy regarded Duncan as “the representative modern woman artist,” who embodied in barefoot dance the “free footed verse” of writer-suffragists like herself (Burke 111). Duncan is the subject of Gertrude Stein’s 1911 poem “Orta or One Dancing” and Loy’s 1952 poem “Biography of Songge Byrd”: “How can I / describe that woman’s art – / her flitting / motion to her song / must make her seem unreal / she was so ariel / so unbound / that if at times she seemed about to fly / her audience found it only fitting” (Loy).
Duncan gave her final performance on July 8, 1927 in Paris at the age of forty-nine and died in September of the same year in Nice, when her long scarf caught in the rear wheel of a car and strangled her. A crowd of ten thousand attended the cremation of her body at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996.
Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World. Eds. Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt. W.W. Norton & Co., 1993.
Loy, Mina. “Biography of Songge Byrd.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1952. https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3905401. Accessed 7 November 2018.