Joel’s lengthy note followed by Isadora Duncan’s autobiography:
Isadora Duncan entered my life in the late 1990s. This was a period of significant change. I lost the ability to run; then walk, as a result of spinal damage caused by radiation treatment that cured me of cancer.
Meanwhile, my physicians were deciding on a form of treatment (that did not work),. While waiting for my physicians to decide how to proceed, I tripped over my feet and fell against the sofa dislocating my right shoulder. At the same time, the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, where I lived, suddenly moved from prosperity to dearth, and I could not find work as a technical writer.
Planning on a temporary California stay to earn enough to pay the mortgage on my family’s North Carolina home, I took up my friend David Phillips’s offer to stay with him in San Francisco. I quickly found work in the Silicon Valley writing a manual on a new KLA-Tancor’s product. The product analyzed silicon wafers as they were being manufactured and identified and destroying damaged wafers. The work was intellectually challenging and my co-workers cheerfully helped me understand the emerging technology. The pay was good. I was able even to purchase my first mobility device—a small yellow Amigo scooter which changed my life by its ability to cross boundaries hitherto limited by my disability.
Previously, I could not go from my desk to the cafeteria. Frequently, I fell because the cane I used could not support me. When I first arrived at work with my scooter, my co-workers (appreciative of technology to solve problems) applauded. [The video below of an Amigo travel school gives an indication of the freedom, maneuverability, and lightness of weight of the scooter my co-workers applauded.]
At the same time, I became a special student at the San Francisco Isadora Duncan School of Dance where Rosario my teacher had a gifted eye for movement. My experiences with the military-style approach of standard rehabilitation were drudgery compared to the joy I felt as a dance student. My teacher encouraged my fledgling efforts to make use of the motion available to me in the aftermath of sudden and frightening paraplegia.
On Saturday mornings I would arrive at the reconverted former Sears Roebuck building on Army Street, near the Mission District. As I moved on the mat, I was surrounded by beautiful women who moved gracefully. Without any sense of self-consciousness, my fellow students showed nude bodies as they changed to dancing attire in the dressing room.
Since then, I have been fortunate with friends, rehabilitation therapists, and others who have encouraged in me a joy of motion I have come to increasingly appreciate. A year ago this month, I had major abdominal surgery. The surgery removed kidney cancer as a threat to my life. It also required a six month recovery period. I am now emerging from this period which reduced my ability to move and reinforced a tendency toward laziness. O.K. I admit it. I am lazy.
As I write this, I have conscientiously resumed moving again concentrating on four critical areas: 1. Standing. I can stand but not without holding on to something. Now, as I hold on to grab bars, the foot board of my bed, the kitchen table, I am increasing my endurance. 2. Lifting my arms above my head. I have a series of exercises for doing so including an iPromise app. This is therapeutic for my right arm, damaged by the long-ago dislocation and now making it easier to dress myself. 3. Breathing. Breathing is good for all mammals. 4. Crawling in private. Crawling is good for me, but it freaks people out on the rare occasions I do so in public.
I am currently writing my next column for e-architect-uk addressed to architects on the housing requirements of the elderly and disabled, focusing primarily on the retiring Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom generation is the largest in U.S. history and based on money spent, the best educated. Yet, over 90 percent of the housing stock is NOT wheel chair accessible. Massive construction is required during a period when major demographic shifts are taking place. Especially worth noting is most of the U.S. population lives in suburbs. Automobile-dependent suburban life is inappropriate for an aging population for whom driving becomes contraindicated.
The solution to the aging U.S. population increasingly at risk of developing disabilities is for society to recognize the value of our talent. All too often, elderly and disabled individuals are regarded as a drain on resources as commentators focus on the cost of Medicare and Social Security. When our talents are recognized encouraged, and employed, we will become contributors rather than a drag on economic development.
The ongoing research on the brain indicates a major contributor to productivity as we age is to use our bodies. Smart architects will design housing where motion is safe for the disabled and elderly and encouraged. I have been writing about how to improve our communities and indeed to plan for the development of new cities. My last two columns have focused on developing a new city in Wyoming.
In area, Wyoming is the tenth largest state in the U.S. In population, it is the smallest of the 50 states. There is plenty of room in Wyoming for a new city of three million people. Three million is the size of the best known of new cities created in my lifetime: Brasilia.
Readers have asked, “What do you plan to call the new city? Naturally, it should be called Isadora. A new city should reflect the needs of its citizens. Our citizens need a city which encourages us to move our bodies as we improve our minds. Isadora Duncan was instrumental in making motion joyous. Let there be dancing. Let there be dancing in the streets ofIsadora.
MY LIFE by ISADORA DUNCAN
If my virtue be a dancer’s virtue, and if I have often sprung with both feet into golden-emerald rapture, and if it be my Alpha and Omega that everything heavy shall become light, everybody a dancer and every spirit a bird: verily, that is my Alpha and Omega.
Published by: HORACE LIVERIGHT, NEW YORK, 1927; Horace Liveright’s Foreword:
The manuscript of this extraordinary book was completed by Isadora Duncan some months before her tragic death, which occurred through an automobile accident in Nice on September 14th, 1927. The details of this accident were printed in American newspapers on the following day.
For many years Miss Isadora Duncan had planned to write this autobiography, and she completed the work in the early summer of 1927. Anyone who has ever been in correspondence with her will recognize her characteristic style. When she died the manuscript was not in type so she had no opportunity to read proof or make corrections, but the work as it is now presented to the public is essentially as she wrote it.
This work ends with Isadora Duncan’s departure for Russia in 1921. She had planned a second book “My Two Years in Bolshevik Russia,” from which America would have learned that great as was her admiration and sympathy for this struggling country, she had no political interests or affiliations; in fact, with the exception of Lunacharsky, Minister of Education, she never met any of the great leaders, and her activities there were confined to educational work.
I confess that when it was first proposed to me I had a terror of writing this book. Not that my life has not been more interesting than any novel and more adventurous than any cinema and, if really well written, would not be an epoch-making recital, but there’s the rub—the writing of it!
It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realize that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence. How often have I contended that although one man might toil to the Equator and have tremendous exploits with lions and tigers, and try to write about it, yet fail, whereas another, who never left his verandah, might write of the killing of tigers in their jungles in a way to make his readers feel that he was actually there, until they can suffer his agony and apprehension, smell lions and hear the fearful approach of the rattle-snake. Nothing seems to exist save in the imagination, and all the marvelous things that have happened to me may lose their savor because I do not possess the pen of a Cervantes or even of a Casanova.
Then another thing. How can we write the truth about ourselves? Do we even know it? There is the vision our friends have of us; the vision we have of ourselves, and the vision our lover has of us. Also the vision our enemies have of us—and all these visions are different. I have good reason to know this, because I have had served to me with my morning coffee newspaper criticisms that declared I was beautiful as a goddess, and that I was a genius, and hardly had I finished smiling contentedly over this, than I picked up the next paper and read that I was without any talent, badly shaped and a perfect harpy.
I soon gave up reading criticisms of my work. I could not stipulate that I should only be given the good ones, and the bad were too depressing and provocatively homicidal. There was a critic in Berlin who pursued me with insults. Among other things he said that I was profoundly unmusical. One day I wrote imploring him to come and see me and I would convince him of his errors. He came and as he sat there, across the tea-table, I harangued him for an hour and a half about my theories of visional movement created from music. I noticed that he seemed most prosaic and stolid, but what was my uproarious dismay when he produced from his pocket a deafaphone and informed me he was quite deaf and even with his instrument could hardly hear the orchestra; although he sat in the first row of the stalls! This was the man whose views on myself had kept me awake at night!
So, if at each point of view others see in us a different person how are we to find in ourselves yet another personality of whom to write in this book? Is it to be the Chaste Madonna, or the Messalina, or the Magdalen, or the Blue Stocking? Where can I find the woman of all these adventures? It seems to me there was not one, but hundreds—and my soul soaring aloft, not really affected by any of them.
It has been well said that the first essential in writing about anything is that the writer should have no experience of the matter. To write of what one has actually experienced in words, is to find that they become most evasive. Memories are less tangible than dreams. Indeed, many dreams I have had seem more vivid than my actual memories. Life is a dream, and it is well that it is so, or who could survive some of its experiences? Such, for instance, as the sinking of the Lusitania. An experience like that should leave forever an expression of horror upon the faces of the men and women who went through it, whereas we meet them everywhere smiling and happy. It is only in romances that people undergo a sudden metamorphosis. In real life, even after the most terrible experiences, the main character remains exactly the same. Witness the number of Russian princes who, after losing everything they possessed, can be seen any evening at Montmartre supping as gaily as ever with chorus girls, just as they did before the war.
Any woman or man who would write the truth of their lives would write a great work. But no one has dared to write the truth of their lives. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this supreme sacrifice for Humanity—to unveil the truth of his soul, his most intimate actions and thoughts. The result is a great book. Walt Whitman gave his truth to America. At one time his book was forbidden to the mails as an “immoral book.” This term seems absurd to us now. No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life. The autobiographies of most famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details and anecdotes which give no realization of their real life. For the great moments of joy or agony they remain strangely silent.
My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one absolutely true movement. Words have a different meaning. Before the public which has thronged my representations I have had no hesitation. I have given them the most secret impulses of my soul. From the first I have only danced my life. As a child I danced the spontaneous joy of growing things. As an adolescent, I danced with joy turning to apprehension of the first realization of tragic undercurrents; apprehension of the pitiless brutality and crushing progress of life.
When I was sixteen I danced before an audience without music. At the end someone suddenly cried from the audience, “It is Death and the Maiden,” and the dance was always afterwards called “Death and the Maiden.” But that was not my intention; I was only endeavoring to express my first knowledge of the underlying tragedy in all seemingly joyous manifestation. The dance, according to my comprehension, should have been called “Life and the Maiden.”
Later on I danced my struggle with this same life, which the audience had called death, and my wresting from it its ephemeral joys.
Nothing is further from the actual truth of a personality than the hero or heroine of the average cinema play or novel. Endowed generally with all the virtues, it would be impossible for them to commit a wrong action. Nobility, courage, fortitude, etc. … etc. …; for him. Purity, sweet temper, etc. … for her. All the meaner qualities and sins for the villain of the plot and for the “Bad Woman,” whereas in reality we know that no one is either good or bad. We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity. Virtuous people are simply those who have either not been tempted sufficiently, because they live in a vegetative state, or because their purposes are so concentrated in one direction that they have not had the leisure to glance around them.
I once saw a wonderful film called “The Rail.” The theme was that the lives of human beings are all as the engine running on a set track. And if the engine jumps the track or finds an insurmountable object in its way, there comes disaster. Happy those drivers who, seeing a steep descent before them, are not inspired with a diabolical impulse to take off all brakes and dash to destruction.
I have sometimes been asked whether I consider love higher than art, and I have replied that I cannot separate them, for the artist is the only lover, he alone has the pure vision of beauty, and love is the vision of the soul when it is permitted to gaze upon immortal beauty.
Perhaps one of the most wonderful personalities of our times is Gabriel D’Annunzio, and yet he is small and, except when his face lights up, can hardly be called beautiful. But when he talks to one he loves, he is transformed to the likeness of Phoebus Apollo himself, and he has won the love of some of the greatest and most beautiful women of the day. When D’Annunzio loves a woman, he lifts her spirit from this earth to the divine region where Beatrice moves and shines. In turn he transforms each woman to a part of the divine essence; he carries her aloft until she believes herself really with Beatrice, of whom Dante has sung in immortal strophes. There was an epoch in Paris when the cult of D’Annunzio rose to such a height that he was loved by all the most famous beauties. At that time he flung over each favorite in turn a shining veil. She rose above the heads of ordinary mortals and walked surrounded by a strange radiance. But when the caprice of the poet ended, this veil vanished, the radiance was eclipsed, and the woman turned again to common clay. She herself did not know what had happened to her, but she was conscious of a sudden descent to earth, and looking back to the transformation of herself when adored by D’Annunzio, she realized that in all her life she would never again find this genius of love. Lamenting her fate, she became more and more desolate, until people, looking at her, said, “How could D’Annunzio love this commonplace and red-eyed woman?” So great a lover was Gabriel D’Annunzio that he could transform the most commonplace mortal to the momentary appearance of a celestial being.
Only one woman in the life of the poet withstood this test. She was the re-incarnation of the divine Beatrice herself, and over her D’Annunzio needed to throw no veil. For I have always believed that Eleanora Duse was the actual Beatrice of Dante re-incarnated in our days, and so before her D’Annunzio could only fall upon his knees in adoration, which was the unique and beatific experience of his life. In all other women he found the material which he himself transmitted; only Eleanora soared above him, revealing to him the divine inspiration.
How little do people know of the power of subtle flattery! To hear oneself praised with that magic peculiar to D’Annunzio is, I imagine, something like the experience of Eve when she heard the voice of the serpent in Paradise. D’Annunzio can make any woman feel that she is the center of the universe.
I remember a wonderful walk I had with him in the Forêt. We stopped in our walk and there was silence. Then D’Annunzio exclaimed, “Oh, Isadora, it is only possible to be alone with you in Nature. All other women destroy the landscape, you alone become part of it.” (Could any woman resist such homage?) “You are part of the trees, the sky; you are the dominating goddess of Nature.”
That was the genius of D’Annunzio. He made each woman feel she was a goddess in a different domain.
Lying here on my bed at the Negresco, I try to analyze this thing that they call memory. I feel the heat of the sun of the Midi. I hear the voices of children playing in a neighboring park. I feel the warmth of my own body. I look down on my bare legs—stretching them out. The softness of my breasts, my arms that are never still but continually waving about in soft undulations, and I realize that for twelve years I have been weary, this breast has harbored a never-ending ache, these hands before me have been marked with sorrow, and when I am alone these eyes are seldom dry. The tears have flowed for twelve years, since that day, twelve years ago, when, lying on another couch, I was suddenly awakened by a great cry and, turning, saw L. like a man wounded: “The children have been killed.”
I remember a strange illness came upon me, only in my throat I felt a burning as if I had swallowed some live coals. But I could not understand. I spoke to him very softly; I tried to calm him; I told him it could not be true. Then other people came, but I could not conceive what had happened. Then entered a man with a dark beard. I was told he was a Doctor. “It is not true,” he said, “I will save them.”
I believed him. I wanted to go with him but people held me back. I know since that this was because they did not wish me to know that there was indeed no hope. They feared the shock would make me insane, but I was, at that time, lifted to a state of exaltation. I saw every one about me weeping, but I did not weep. On the contrary I felt an immense desire to console every one. Looking back, it is difficult for me to understand my strange state of mind. Was it that I was really in a state of clairvoyance, and that I knew that death does not exist—that those two little cold images of wax were not my children, but merely their cast-off garments? That the souls of my children lived on in radiance, but always lived? Only twice comes that cry of the mother which one hears as without one’s self—at Birth and at Death—for when I felt in mine those little cold hands that would never again press mine in return I heard my cries—the same cries as I had heard at their births. Why the same—since one is the cry of supreme joy and the other of Sorrow? I do not know why but I know they are the same. Is it that in all the Universe there is but one Great Cry containing Sorrow, Joy, Ecstasy, Agony, the Mother Cry of Creation?
MY LIFE CHAPTER ONE
The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother’s womb. Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and iced champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, “In my mother’s womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne—the food of Aphrodite.”
My mother was going through such a tragic experience at this time that she often said, “This child that will be born will surely not be normal,” and she expected a monster. And in fact from the moment I was born it seemed that I began to agitate my arms and legs in such a fury that my mother cried, “You see I was quite right, the child is a maniac!” But later on, placed in a baby jumper in the center of the table I was the amusement of the entire family and friends, dancing to any music that was played.
My first memory is of a fire. I remember being thrown into the arms of a policeman from an upper window. I must have been about two or three years old, but I distinctly remember the comforting feeling, among all the excitement—the screams and the flames—of the security of the policeman and my little arms round his neck. He must have been an Irishman. I hear my mother cry in frenzy, “My boys, my boys,” and see her held back by the crowd from entering the building in which she imagined my two brothers had been left. Afterwards I remember finding the two boys sitting on the floor of a bar-room, putting on their shoes and stockings, and then the inside of a carriage, and then sitting on a counter drinking hot chocolate.
I was born by the sea, and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. My first idea of movement, of the dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves. I was born under the star of Aphrodite, Aphrodite who was also born on the sea, and when her star is in the ascendant, events are always propitious to me. At these epochs life flows lightly and I am able to create. I have also noticed that the disappearance of this star is usually followed by disaster for me. The science of astrology has not perhaps the importance to-day that it had in the time of the ancient Egyptians or of the Chaldeans, but it is certain that our psychic life is under the influence of the planets, and if parents understood this they would study the stars in the creation of more beautiful children.
I believe, too, that it must make a great difference to a child’s life whether it is born by the sea or in the mountains. The sea has always drawn me to it, whereas in the mountains I have a vague feeling of discomfort and a desire to fly. They always give me an impression of being a prisoner to the earth. Looking up at their tops, I do not feel the admiration of the general tourist, but only a desire to leap over them and escape. My life and my art were born of the sea.
I have to be thankful that when we were young my mother was poor. She could not afford servants or governesses for her children, and it is to this fact that I owe the spontaneous life which I had the opportunity to express as a child and never lost. My mother was a musician and taught music for a living and as she gave her lessons at the houses of her pupils she was away from home all day and for many hours in the evening. When I could escape from the prison of school, I was free. I could wander alone by the sea and follow my own fantasies. How I pity the children I see constantly attended by nurses and governesses, constantly protected and taken care of and smartly dressed. What chance of life have they? My mother was too busy to think of any dangers which might befall her children, and therefore my two brothers and I were free to follow our own vagabond impulses, which sometimes led us into adventures which, had our mother known of them, would have driven her wild with anxiety. Fortunately she was blissfully unconscious. I say fortunately for me, for it is certainly to this wild untrammeled life of my childhood that I owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom. I was never subjected to the continual “don’ts” which it seems to me make children’s lives a misery.
I went to the public school at the early age of five. I think my mother prevaricated about my age. It was necessary to have some place to leave me. I believe that whatever one is to do in one’s after life is clearly expressed as a baby. I was already a dancer and a revolutionist. My mother, who had been baptized and raised in an Irish Catholic family, was a devout Catholic up to the time when she discovered that my father was not that model of perfection she had always thought him to be. She divorced him and left with her four children to face the world. From that time her faith in the Catholic religion revolted violently to definite atheism, and she became a follower of Bob Ingersoll, whose works she used to read to us.
Among other things, she decided that all sentimentality was nonsense, and when I was quite a baby she revealed to us the secret of Santa Claus, with the result that at a school festival for Christmas, when the teacher was distributing candies and cakes and said, “See, children, what Santa Claus has brought you,” I rose and solemnly replied, “I don’t believe you, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” The teacher was considerably ruffled. “Candies are only for little girls who believe in Santa Claus,” she said. “Then I don’t want your candy,” said I. The teacher unwisely flew into a temper and, to make an example of me, ordered me to come forward and sit on the floor. I came forward, and, turning to the class, I made the first of my famous speeches. “I don’t believe lies,” I shouted. “My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus; it is only the rich mothers who can pretend to be Santa Claus and give presents.”
At this the teacher caught hold of me and endeavored to sit me down upon the floor, but I stiffened my legs and held on to her, and she only succeeded in hitting my heels against the parquet. After failing in this, she stood me in the corner, but although I stood there, I turned my head over my shoulder and shouted, “There is no Santa Claus, there is no Santa Claus,” until finally she was forced to send me home. I went home shouting all the way, “There is no Santa Claus,” but I never got over the feeling of the injustice with which I had been treated, deprived of candy and punished for telling the truth. When I recounted this to my mother, saying, “Wasn’t I right? There is no Santa Claus, is there?” she replied, “There is no Santa Claus and there is no God, only your own spirit to help you.” And that night, as I sat upon the rug at her feet, she read us the lectures of Bob Ingersoll.
It seems to me that the general education a child receives at school is absolutely useless. I remember that in the classroom I was either considered amazingly intelligent and at the head of my class, or quite hopelessly stupid and at the bottom of the class. It all depended on a trick of memory and whether I had taken the trouble to memorize the subject we were given to learn. And I really had not the slightest idea what it was about. Whether I was at the head or the foot of the class, it was all to me a weary time in which I watched the clock until the hand pointed to three, and we were free. My real education came during the evenings when my mother played to us Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Chopin or read aloud to us from Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats or Burns. These hours were to us enchanted. My mother recited most of the poetry by heart and I, in imitation of her, one day at a school festival, at the age of six, electrified my audience by reciting William Lytle’s “Antony to Cleopatra”:
“I am dying, Egypt, dying!
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast.”
On another occasion when the teacher required of each pupil to write the history of their lives, my story ran somewhat in this wise:
“When I was five we had a cottage on 23rd Street. Failing to pay the rent, we could not remain there but moved to 17th Street, and in a short time, as funds were low, the landlord objected, so we moved to 22nd Street, where we were not allowed to live peacefully but were moved to 10th Street.”
The history continued in this way, with an infinite number of removals. When I rose to read it to the school, the teacher became very angry. She thought I was playing a bad joke, and I was sent to the principal, who sent for my mother. When my poor mother read the paper she burst into tears and vowed that it was only too true. Such was our nomadic existence.
I hope that schools have changed since I was a little girl. My memory of the teaching of the public schools is that it showed a brutal incomprehension of children. I also remember the misery of trying to sit still on a hard bench with an empty stomach, or cold feet in wet shoes. The teacher appeared to me to be an inhuman monster who was there to torture us. And of these sufferings children will never speak.
I can never remember suffering from our poverty at home, where we took it as a matter of course; it was only at school that I suffered. To a proud and sensitive child the public school system, as I remember it, was as humiliating as a penitentiary. I was always in revolt against it.
When I was about six years old, my mother came home one day and found that I had collected half a dozen babies of the neighborhood—all of them too young to walk—and had them sitting before me on the floor while I was teaching them to wave their arms. When she asked the explanation of this, I informed her that it was my school of the dance. She was amused, and placing herself at the piano, she began to play for me. This school continued and became very popular. Later on, little girls of the neighborhood came and their parents paid me a small sum to teach them. This was the beginning of what afterwards proved a very lucrative occupation.
When I was ten years old the classes were so large that I informed my mother that it was useless for me to go to school any more, as it was only a waste of time when I could be making money, which I considered far more important. I put up my hair on the top of my head and said that I was sixteen. As I was very tall for my age every one believed me. My sister Elizabeth, who was brought up by our grandmother, afterwards came to live with us and joined in the teaching of these classes. We became in great demand and taught in many houses of the wealthiest people in San Francisco.
1927 Cover of Isadora Duncan’s autobiography
Note: I will be publishing Chapter Two of Isadora Duncan’s beautiful autobiography. Until then, please dance.
Thank you Project Gutenberg Canada. http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/duncani-mylife/duncani-mylife-00-h-dir/images/cover.jpg