Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan dancing with scarf, 1918
Isadora Duncan dancing with scarf, 1918. Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: Pioneering work in expressive dance and modern dance

Dates: May 26 (27?), 1877 - September 14, 1927

Occupation: dancer, dance teacher

Also known as: Angela Isadora Duncan (birth name); Angela Duncan

About Isadora Duncan

She was born as Angela Duncan in San Francisco in 1877. Her father, Joseph Duncan, was a divorced father and prosperous businessman when he married Dora Gray, 30 years younger than he was, in 1869. He left shortly after the birth of their fourth child, Angela, immersed in a banking scandal; he was arrested a year later and finally acquitted after four trials. Dora Gray Duncan divorced her husband, supporting her family by teaching music. Her husband later returned and provided a home for his ex-wife and their children.

The youngest of the four children, the future Isadora Duncan, began ballet lessons in early childhood. She chafed under traditional ballet style and developed her own style that she found more natural. From age six she was teaching others to dance, and remained a gifted and committed teacher throughout her life. In 1890 she was dancing at the San Francisco Barn Theatre, and from there went to Chicago and then New York. From the age of 16, she used the name Isadora.

Isadore Duncan's first public appearances in America made little impact on the public or critics, and so she left for England in 1899 with her family, including her sister, Elizabeth, her brother, Raymond, and her mother. There, she and Raymond studied Greek sculpture at the British Museum to inspire her dance style and costume, adopting the Greek tunic and dancing barefoot. She won over first private and then public audiences with her free movement and unusual costume (called "scanty," baring arms and legs). She began to dance in other European countries, becoming quite popular.

Isadora Duncan's two children, born of liaisons with two different married lovers, drowned in 1913 along with their nurse in Paris when their car rolled into the Seine. In 1914 another son died soon after he was born. This was a tragedy that marked Isadora Duncan for the rest of her life, and after their death, she tended more towards tragic themes in her performances.

In 1920, in Moscow to start a dance school, she met the poet Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin, who was almost 20 years younger than she was. They married in 1922, at least in part so they could go to America, where his Russian background led many to identify them as Bolsheviks or communists. The abuse directed at him led her to say, famously, that she would never return to America, and she did not. They moved back to the Soviet Union in 1924, and Yesenin left Isadora. He committed suicide there in 1925.

Her later tours being less successful than those in her earlier career, Isadora Duncan lived in Nice in her later years. She died in 1927 of accidental strangulation when a long scarf she was wearing became caught in the rear wheel of the car she was riding in. Shortly after her death, her autobiography came out, My Life.

More About Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan founded dance schools around the world, including in the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany, and France. Most of these schools failed quickly; the first she founded, in Gruenwald, Germany, continued for a longer time, with some students, known as "Isadorables," carrying on her tradition.

Her life was the subject of a 1969 Ken Russell movie, Isadora, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, and of a Kenneth Macmillan ballet, 1981.

Background, Family

  • Father: Joseph Charles Duncan
  • Mother: Mary Isadora (Dora) Gray
  • Full siblings: Raymond, Augustine, and Elizabeth

Partners, Children

  • Gordon Craig, stage designer and son of Ellen Terry, father of her first child, Deirdre (born 1906)
  • Paris Singer, art patron and wealthy heir of the Singer sewing machine fortune, father of her second child, Patrick
  • Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin, Russian poet, married 1922, he committed suicide in 1925 after returning to the Soviet Union


  • Frederika Blair. Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman (1986).
  • Ann Daly. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America (1995).
  • Mary Desti. The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan, 1921-1927 (1929).
  • Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt, editors. Life into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World (1993).
  • Irma Duncan. The Technique of Isadora Duncan (1937, reissued 1970).
  • Isadora Duncan. My Life (1927, reissued 1972).
  • Isadora Duncan; Sheldon Cheney, editor. The Art of the Dance (1928, reissued 1977).
  • Peter Kurth. Isadora: A Sensational Life (2002).
  • Lillian Loewenthal. The Search for Isadora: The Legend and Legacy of Isadora Duncan (1993).
  • Allan Ross Macdougall. Isadora: A Revolutionary in Art and Love (1960).
  • Gordon McVay. Isadora and Esenin (1980).
  • Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck, Nicholas Nahumck, and Anne M. Moll. Isadora Duncan: The Dances (1994).
  • Ilya Ilyich Schneider. Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years, translated (1968, reprinted 1981).
  • Victor Seroff. The Real Isadora (1971).
  • F. Steegmuller. Your Isadora (1974).
  • Walter Terry. Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy (1964).
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Isadora Duncan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Isadora Duncan. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Isadora Duncan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).