How Isadora Duncan restored dance as a spiritual art form.
Isadora Duncan, the mother of contemporary dance, was a pioneering American woman and free spirit, an artist of soul ahead of her time. In her short life from 1877 to 1927, she revolutionized dance during an era when Victorian morals and aesthetics left little space for movement arts beyond the rarified, stiff ballet, ballroom dance, or the “common” vaudevillian confections of State Fairs or urban playhouses.
Hers was a bold vision of a New Dance and a New Woman – the Dance and Dancer of the Future. She wrote that the “Dance of the Future” would have to reclaim its place as a sacred art form, the way it was with the ancient Greeks. The dancer dances not to astonish, but to raise consciousness and act as a channel for universal energies. In many ways, the motivation for dance goes full circle to its primal roots – the sacred communion of body, mind, spirit, and community. Only now, the community is the whole of humanity in its cosmic context.
The “Dancer of the Future”, according to Isadora, would be “one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together, that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body. The dancer will not belong to any nation, but to all humanity. She will dance not in the form of nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette, but in the form of woman in her greatest and purest expression. She will realize the mission of woman’s body and the holiness of its parts. She will dance the changing life of nature….From all parts of her body shall shine radiant intelligence, bringing to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands of women. She shall dance the freedom of woman.” - from her magnus opus, The Art of the Dance.
All throughout Duncan’s writings, we find references to the “future”, and what the Dance and Dancer of the Future will be like. Isadora was a prophetess, knowing that the freedom of body, mind, and spirit that she personified had still not found their optimal historical moment; that there would come a time in the future when Modern Woman was ready for her message, and the stage set for the Dance of the Future to unfold. I believe that time is now.
What is Isadora Duncan’s message for modern-day dancers within this vision of the Dancer of the Future? What discoveries did this revolutionary artist and feminist make that set the stage for dance to evolve as a sacred, universal art form? She brings us a richness of approach to the art of the dance - transformational in motivation, inspiration, and technique of expression.
Yes, expression can be taught and learned; it is not necessarily innate as many claim – “You either have it or you don’t.” Duncan revealed a methodology of expression that has become a cornerstone in modern dance forms and performing arts – there is literally no expressive art that cannot be improved by the application of this technique. It centers on the sequential articulation of motivation – involving first the eyes, or the intelligent perception of stimuli. Secondly comes the solar plexus, or the emotional intention, and thirdly, the actual gesture of the body. A great example is the act of falling in love. We “see” the loved one first (how often do we say, “love at first sight”?) After we see the person, our hearts stir and we are emotionally drawn to them – we cast them in the light of our solar plexus as we turn our hearts in their direction. And thirdly comes our gesture, whether we walk toward them, reach out our hands, or open our arms. The expression sequence makes sense on so many levels because it is natural and follows the natural order of things, which Isadora held dear in her philosophies on dance and life.
Nature was her first muse. She studied the lines, shapes, and movements of the elements and the universe and located the human body as a central figure in the grand pageant of the natural Universe. She wrote (AOTD):
“If we seek the real source of the dance, if we go to nature, we find that the dance of the future is the dance of the past, the dance of eternity, and has been and will always be the same. The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement in the past and what will be its movement in the future..”
Since each one of us is part of the universe, we are subject to the same laws of movement and gravitation that govern the universe, and Isadora envisioned our dance as a “human translation of the gravitation of the universe.” Each movement propagates the next in endless cycles of movement, like the waves and winds and atoms and galaxies.
Now, more than ever, we are rediscovering the sacredness of Mother Earth and reconnecting to her rhythms in our spirituality. Eco-feminist philosophies and practices are making their way to the center stage of world culture and women are reconnecting to their birthright as priestesses of the natural world. We bring the dance to the beaches, mountaintops and deserts, connecting to the currents of the Earth and Sky through their rhythms, shapes, and movements. When we dance in tune with Nature, we open ourselves to its innumerous beauties – we breathe fresh air, lift our faces to the sun like flowers, sway with the waves and trees, and fall to the Earth in the poetry of form and repose. “As above, so below” – the ancient edict rings truer than ever as we, the Dancers of the Future, stand barefoot on the Earth and reach our arms and spirits to the heights of the Universe; the lines of our bodies transmitting universal energies in vital, endless cycles. As Isadora said, Woman must be a “link in the chain, and her movement must be one with the great movement which runs through the universe.”
She distilled the nobility of the classic Greek body line, made so famous in sculpture and painting, and applied its universal quality to the body of modern woman – relaxed, natural, and balanced; its form and lines channeling forces greater than the self. In AOTD, she wrote of her fascination with the Greek humanist aesthetic and its connection to nature:
“The Greeks in all their (arts) evolved their movements from the movements of nature, as we plainly see expressed in all representations of the Greek gods, who, being no other than the representatives of natural forces are always designed in a pose expressing the concentrations and evolution of these forces. This is why Greek art is not national or characteristic but has been and will be the art of all humanity for all time. Therefore dancing naked upon the earth I naturally fall into Greek positions, for Greek positions are only earth positions.”
Not, as she put it, in defiance of natural law like she saw in ballet, which strives to defeat the gravitational pull of the Earth, and which places the center of the dancer in the small of the back. There had to be another center, another wellspring from which true movement emanated. Her instincts led her on a search for this source, and she found it in the middle of her chest.
Isadora Duncan was the first dancer to identify the Solar Plexus as the source of all expressive movement. She wrote in AOTD:
”...I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus...I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance."
The solar plexus is the seat of emotional intention – the crossroads of the body’s axes from which emanate the expressive servants of the heart – the arms. Her discoveries in connection to the solar plexus have enriched every dance form, opening the door for developments by famous dancers like Martha Graham. Its powerful techniques apply to diverse movement, theater, and dance arts, all who benefit from an activated center. Posture, bearing, expression, equilibrium, dynamics, reach, lines, and stage presence all emanate from a harmonized solar plexus. Its dynamics harmonize perfectly with the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm in breathing, so that the two work together and not against each other. It’s the motor of it all.
To discover and activate one’s solar plexus is to tap into a whole new source of personal emotive power, with the heart and solar plexus chakras together forming an energetic sphere sitting atop the diaphragm. The solar plexus radiates courage, effervescence, joy, and desire. To expand its light outward is to project those emotions, while contracting it inward is to express solitude, introspection, loss, pain, and grief. Through working with the solar plexus, we gain fuller access to the vast spectrum of human emotion, and we begin to sense that its expression has profound therapeutic qualities. When we move the body, we move the soul, and both can heal themselves through this movement. Learning to release, direct and transform the emotional energies stored in the solar plexus are remarkable steps on the paths of self-discovery that modern women seek today. It is the internal “Sun” that shines forth its radiant brilliance, illuminating every part of the body of the Dancer of the Future.
Like so many visions and dreams at the dawning of the modern age, the Dancer of the Future has become a reality. More and more we are seeing spiritual qualities returning to dance. More and more we are becoming aware that there are higher motives to engaging in this art form, motives more universal and humanistic in nature. The Dancer of the Future spoke through Isadora and her contemporaries like Ruth St. Denis, who wrote that there will come a day when “we shall dance to heal and bless” instead of to merely “astonish”.
Of all the bounty Isadora Duncan dance brings to the modern dance community - expressive technique, the alignment with Nature and its forces, and the power of the solar plexus, I think that the most important gift she gave us is a new motivation for the dance. A new reason to dance that is a lot like the ancient reason our ancestors danced – for community, for connection to natural forces, to release Self in favor of a more noble Self, to invoke new realities and to reach for something bigger and higher than ourselves. Isadora speaks of evolving motivations for dance in AOTD:
“There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul.”
The Dancer of the Future lives within this luminous fluidity. This is the alchemical elixir that the dance can and should seek – beyond ego, costumes, and stage makeup. Beyond choreography, musicality and performativity. These are all ingredients in the mix, but the elixir comes from the process, the rituals and ceremonies of the Dance of the Future, the eventual change of attitude about dance and realization of higher purposes for it. To dance becomes a quest for enlightenment.
“Listen to the music with your soul,” she tells us. “Do you not feel you are moving toward the light?”
To view the dance in this way is to view the self as a work in progress – a vessel ever evolving in its capacity to attract, transmit, and repose in this luminous fluidity.
“Imagine then a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration has attainted such a degree of understanding that his body is simply the luminous manifestation of his soul; whose body dances in accordance with a music heard inwardly, in an expression of….another, profounder world. This is the truly creative dancer, natural but not imitative, speaking in movement out of himself and out of something greater than all selves.”
To connect to something greater than ourselves – the Dance of the Future is the dance of the past and of all times. Its cycle has come round and I can see it – I see us dancing united in the spirit of universal beauty - natural, every one of us “worthy enough” to join. I can see dancing from the soul as a way of healing ourselves, our tribes, our communities, and our planet. I can feel competitiveness replaced by a shared joy, and I can sense that ego can give way to the oceanic feeling of connection as we open our channels to the rhythms of the universe. The future is here, and we are the Dancers of the Future.