Inventors of Gay: Isadora Duncan
May 27, 1877 — September 14, 1927
“Isadora was the first bra-burner. Ain’t ya glad she showed up?”
— The theme song from the television show Maude, with Bea Arthur
Isadora Duncan was the original wild child; a sexually rambunctious free spirit who looked at dance as a religion rather than an entertainment. She is credited with inventing modern dace by moving away from the rigid forms of ballet and celebrating the ungirded flowing beauty of the female form.
In fact constriction of any form was always a trigger for the San Francisco-born Duncan to get up and get away. Her costumes often consisted of just scarves, she quit school several times because she felt the teachings were too rigid, she had two daughters and a son out of the confines of marriage, and she rejected the persistent Victorian morals of the times, loving both men and women freely.
She was a sketchy pedagogue who taught her students that dancing for commercial purposes was evil. In Grunewald, Germany, she created her most celebrated troupe of pupils, dubbed the Isadorables, who took her surname and subsequently performed both with Duncan and independently.
After the accidental death of her daughters in the Seine, she took solace in the arms of Elenora Duse. Duse herself was freshly cut loose from a relationship with young lesbian feminist Lina Poletti.
Rebounding in 1922, she married gay Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior (left). He was young, golden, and beautiful, and a tragically fated alcoholic. After his suicide Duncan again sought the comfort of another woman, Mercedes De Acosta, an artist-writer-socialite also worthy of a profile here for her numerous affairs with famous and wealthy women.
Ironically, the woman who ran from constriction was strangled at 50 as her flowing scarves were ensnared in the wheels and axel of a Bugatti, breaking her neck.
Mrs. Patrick Campbell – the actress who originally played Eliza Doolittle
Gordon Craig — theater designer and Ellen Terry’s son, and father of one of her children
Gabriele D’Annunzio — Italian poet and daredevil
Why we care:
She was an unabashed diva who burned the candle at both ends, helping break down rigid mores of the time which opened the way for feminism, sexual freedom, and even presaging the flower child movement of the 1960s.
Trivia sidenote on the 1968 biopic of Duncan with Vanessa Redgrave: When filming the Russian dance sequence in a theater filled with unsuspecting extras, Redgrave duplicated a real-life incident in the life of Isadora Duncan by ripping off the top of her dress and dancing bare-breasted while proclaiming her allegiance to Communism. The extras were not told that she would do this, thus providing the desired audience-aghast reaction shots that director Karel Reisz wanted.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.