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Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 – September 14, 1927) was an American dancer. She is considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. In the United States she was popular only in New York, and then only later in her life. She performed to acclaim throughout Europe.
Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France. Duncan's large silk scarf while still draped around her neck, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle.
Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922), youngest daughter of Thomas Gray, a California state senator, and his wife Mary Gorman. The other children were Elizabeth, Augustin, and Raymond.
Her father was the son of Joseph Moulder Duncan and Harriett Bioren. Soon after Isadora's birth, Joseph Duncan lost the bank and was publicly disgraced. Her parents were divorced by 1880 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and her mother Dora moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a pianist and music teacher. In her early years, Duncan did attend school but, finding it to be constricting to her individuality, she dropped out. As her family was very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children to earn extra money.
In 1895 Duncan became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York. She soon became disillusioned with the form. In 1899 she decided to move to Europe, first to London and then a year later, to Paris. Within two years she achieved both notoriety and success.
Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in the 1898 sinking of the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan.
Montparnasse's developing Bohemian environment did not suit her. In 1909 Duncan moved to two large apartments at 5 rue Danton, where she lived on the ground floor and used the first floor for her dance school. Barefoot, dressed in clinging scarves and faux-Grecian tunics, she created a primitivist style of improvisational dance to counter the rigid styles of the time. She was inspired by the classics, especially Greek myth. She rejected traditional ballet steps to stress improvisation, emotion and the human form. Duncan believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature"; she gained a wide following that allowed her to set up a school to teach.
Duncan became so famous that she inspired artists and authors to create sculpture, jewelry, poetry, novels, photographs, watercolors, prints and paintings of her. When the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was built in 1913, her likeness was carved in its bas-relief over the entrance by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and included in painted murals of the nine muses by Maurice Denis in the auditorium.
In 1916 Duncan traveled to Brazil and performed at Rio de Janeiro's Teatro Municipal in August and at São Paulo's Teatro Municipal on September 2, 3 and 5 with pianist Maurice Dumesnil. Writer and journalist Paulo Barreto, known as João do Rio, claimed to have seen her dance "naked" in the forest of Tijuca, in front of Rio's most famous waterfall.
In 1922 she acted on her sympathy for the social and political revolution in the new Soviet Union and moved to Moscow. She cut a striking figure in the increasingly austere post-revolution capital, but her international prominence brought welcome attention to the new regime's artistic and cultural ferment. The Russian government's failure to follow through on extravagant promises of support for Duncan's work, combined with the country's spartan living conditions, sent her back to the West in 1924.
Throughout her career Duncan did not like the commercial aspects of public performance, regarding touring, contracts and other practicalities as distractions from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. A gifted, if unconventional pedagogue, she was the founder of three schools dedicated to teaching her dance philosophy to groups of young girls (a brief effort to include boys was unsuccessful). The first, in Grunewald, Germany, gave rise to her most celebrated troupe of pupils, dubbed the Isadorables, who took her surname and subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently. The second school was short lived prior to World War I at a château outside Paris. She founded the third while in Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Duncan's teaching and her pupils caused her both pride and anguish. Her sister, Elizabeth Duncan, took over the German school and adapted it to the Teutonic philosophy of her German husband. The Isadorables were subject to ongoing hectoring from Duncan over their willingness to perform commercially; Lisa Duncan was permanently ostracized for performing in nightclubs. The most notable of the group, Irma Duncan, remained in the Soviet Union after Isadora Duncan's departure. She ran the school there, angering her mentor Duncan by allowing students to perform in public and commercial venues.
Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe; his alcoholism resulted in drunken rages, with repeated destruction of furniture and interiors of their hotel rooms, bringing Duncan much negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow, where he soon suffered a mental breakdown and was placed in a mental institution. Released from hospital, he allegedly committed suicide on December 28, 1925, at the age of 30.
Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock—the first, Deirdre (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick (born May 1, 1910), by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer.
Her private life was considered scandalous, especially following the drowning of Deirdre and Patrick in an accident on the Seine River on April 19, 1913. The children were in the car with their nurse, returning home after lunch with Isadora and Paris Singer. The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision. He got out to hand-crank the engine, but he had forgotten to set the parking brake, so once he got the car to start, it went across the Boulevard Bourdon and rolled down the embankment into the river below. The children and the nanny drowned.
Following the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating in Corfu with her brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse. The fact that Duse was just coming out of a lesbian relationship with rebellious young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse's relationship, but there has never been definite proof that the two were involved romantically. In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did, indeed become pregnant right after the deaths of her children. She gave birth to a son, who lived only a few hours and was never named.
During her last United States tour, in 1922-23, Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!". She was bisexual, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood circles. She had a lengthy and passionate affair with poet Mercedes de Acosta.
Duncan and de Acosta wrote regularly in often revealing letters of correspondence. In one from 1927, Duncan wrote: (quoted by Hugo Vickers in "Loving Garbo") "...A slender body, hands soft and white, for the service of my delight, two sprouting breasts round and sweet, invite my hungry mouth to eat, from whence two nipples firm and pink, persuade my thirsty soul to drink, and lower still a secret place where I'd fain hide my loving face...." In another letter to de Acosta she wrote: "Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you—to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish." Isadora, June 28, 1926. De Acosta had once proclaimed that from the moment she first saw Isadora Duncan, she looked upon her as a great genius, and was taken by her completely.
By the end of her life Duncan's performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts. She spent her final years moving between Paris and the Mediterranean, running up debts at hotels. She spent short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by an ever-decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography. They hoped it might be sufficiently successful to support her. In a reminiscent sketch, Zelda Fitzgerald recalled how she and F. Scott sat in a Paris cafe watching a somewhat drunk Duncan. He would speak of how memorable it was, but what Zelda recalled was that while all eyes were watching Duncan, Zelda was able to steal the salt and pepper shakers from the table.
In her book Isadora, an Intimate Portrait, Sewell Stokes, who met Duncan in the last years of her life, describes her extravagant waywardness. Duncan's autobiography My Life was published in 1927. Composer Percy Grainger called Isadora's autobiography a "life-enriching masterpiece." 
Duncan's fondness for flowing scarves was the cause of her death in a freak automobile accident in Nice, France, on the night of September 14, 1927, at the age of 50. The scarf was hand-painted silk from the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous."
Duncan was a passenger in the Amilcar automobile of a handsome French-Italian mechanic Benoît Falchetto, whom she had nicknamed "Buggatti" (sic). Before getting into the car, she reportedly said to her friend Mary Desti and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" (Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!). However, according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, who was in Nice at the time and visited Duncan's body in the morgue, Desti admitted that she had lied about Duncan's last words. Instead, she told Wescott, Duncan said, "Je vais à l'amour" (I am off to love). Desti considered this too embarrassing to be recorded as the dance legend's last words, especially as it suggested that Duncan hoped that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a sexual assignation.
When Falchetto drove off Duncan's large silk scarf, a gift from Desti, and draped around her neck, became entangled around one of the vehicle's open-spoked wheels and rear axle. As The New York Times noted in its obituary: "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement." Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck.
Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her beloved children in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Ironically, the headstone of her grave contains the inscription in French: "The Paris Opera Ballet School."
At her death, she was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the U.S.