Making Modernism

Floyd Dell’s “On Seeing Isadora Duncan’s Pupils,” 1915

This unanthologized 1915 poem by cultural radical Floyd Dell underscores the adoration of bohemian artists and intellectuals for iconic modern dancer Isadora Duncan, who was revered as a symbol of artistic freedom and social emancipation. Duncan’s performances enthralled audiences during United States tours in 1908-10, 1914-15, and 1922-23, but Dell’s poem expresses admiration not so much for her charisma as a performer, as for her influence as a teacher. Duncan herself does not appear in the poem: rather, the poem is a tribute to the grace and strength of the bodies shaped by her dance instruction.

Duncan is perhaps the most famous of a generation of iconic female modern dancers, choreographers, and dance educators of the early and mid-20th century, whose experimentation with the art of movement virtually embodies ideals of freedom and rebellion. Surrounding Duncan in the United States and western Europe were such experimentalists and educators as Loie Fuller, Maud Allan, Ruth St. Denis, Margaret Morris, and Mary Wigman; from Russia came the hugely influential Ballets Russes, whose exoticism energized audiences during the same period. Many audiences and subsequently scholars of 20th-century cultural history have celebrated the female dancer as a subversive and liberating figure. Historian Judith Walkowitz, for example, has written about the “kinesthetic identification” between spectators and performers such as the dancer Maud Allan. Such identification might have encouraged spectators to experiment in their lives with the freedom of movement they encountered during performances; the audiences became the performer’s students, in a sense. Dell’s poem celebrates the performer’s influence more than the performer herself: “these stars” are her students, and the poem focuses on their promise. Duncan’s students are embodiments of nothing less than social change, their “strong-limbed” bodies “a prophecy” of a better world.

Duncan’s students serve as a collective muse to the progressive thinker trying to imagine a way out of the predicaments of urbanized, industrialized modernity and to the feminist agitator eager to liberate women from the confinements of Victorian ideologies of domesticity.  They also indicate desire for ritual and order in a chaotic world. As a “flaming challenge to a world benighted,” Duncan’s dance pupils symbolize the promise offered by therapeutic movement to alleviate the physical and emotional symptoms of workers caught up in industrial and mechanized routines. As youthful lamps “of daring” they lead the way into female enfranchisement (Dell, a feminist, could easily be imagining their strength as empowering symbols of the fight for suffrage; women in the U.S. were granted the right to vote in 1920). As “Goddesses” walking beside the rather obscure “amaranthine” streams, they seem like figures from a distant Golden Age as well, embodying anti-modern, primitivist longings among many “modernists.”

Rishona Zimring, Lewis and Clark College

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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