A dancing woman stands center stage, her arms outstretched in natural, free, and unbound movement, as her heart cries out to us…
In May of 1877 a dancing, feminist, revolutionary was born. She was not constrained by the corsets, morals, or traditions of her time. Barefoot, clad in flowing garments, with a diaphanous scarf in hand, she stepped onto the stage and rocked the world: the world of dance, the world of women, and the world of religion.
Born in San Francisco as Dora Angela Duncan and known to us as Isadora Duncan, or Holy Isadora. This wild woman rejected the rigidity of ballet, conventional roles for women, and traditional religion. After feeling constrained by the pointe shoes, corsets, and unyielding technique of American ballet, Duncan left for Europe, intent on revolutionizing the world through dance. She claimed, “I have come to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body … (Duncan quoted by Terry Walter in Isadora Duncan).”
In calling for a rebirth of religion through dance, however, Duncan was not limited by the conventions of the day. Because the forms of dance capable of bringing about such a renaissance did not yet exist. Its popular and artistic forms (ballet) paralleled the attitudes toward the body ensconced in Christian values. Ballet and Christianity imposed formal moral codes: bodies as weightless, ethereal, something to overcome; toes that relevé away from the earth and toward heaven; no falls. If a dancer falls in ballet—or in traditional Christianity—it is a mistake, perhaps even a sin. In the form of modern dance Duncan created and developed, the body utilized natural and prophetic movement, focusing on the solar plexus as the center of the body, movement based on breath, contraction and release, fall and recovery, asymmetry, and organic movement found in nature.
Inspired by Greek art and statues, the movements of natural elements in the sea, wind, and trees, and her understanding of Nietzsche’s revaluing of Christian values, Duncan lived without bounds. She called Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra “her bible” and identified her own vision with that of Zarathustra. She believed that her dance would help women overcome their faith in an otherworldly God by educating them to an awareness of their own bodily being as holy and beautiful, as the source of their highest ideals. Kimerer LaMothe thoughtfully recounts Duncan’s use of Nietzsche in her book Nietzsche’s Dancers. Idealizing the philosopher who claimed he could only believe in a God who could dance, Duncan states, “If my art is symbolic for any one thing, it is symbolic of the freedom of woman and her emancipation from the hide-bound conventions that are the warp and woof of Puritanism (Isadora Speaks, 44).”
Freeing women, revolutionizing religion, and developing an entirely new dance form paralleled the unconventionality of Duncan’s personal life. In both facets—personal and professional—Duncan dismantled stereotypes. She birthed two children out of wedlock with two different men, and after her children tragically died in a car accident, it is rumored that she had an affair with a woman. Like her dance and her philosophy, her sexuality was also fluid and unconstrained by the mores of her time. And for this fluidity—in life, in dance, in morals, in religion—she was highly criticized. Her bare feet, flowing dresses, and sometimes bare breasts were dubbed scandalous. At times, she was called a fraud, her dance considered by some critics to be nothing more than rolling on the ground, waving a scarf, and grasping the air. Amidst the controversies of her dance, her religion, and her love life, Duncan believed that “every artist worth anything has always been vilified. It is the price the world demands for the beauty we invoke (Isadora Speaks, 50).”
Ultimately, tragedy reigned supreme in Duncan’s life as her children were killed, her lover committed suicide, and drunkenness and poverty consumed her later years. And it is ironic that her fluidity—the very virtue that set women free, revolutionized dance, and revalued religion—is what led to her death. In an act of glamour, the dancing diva thrust the silk scarf around her neck out a car window so that it would billow in the wind; the scarf got tangled in the wheel and strangled her.
Amidst her fits of passion and drunken rages, Duncan remains holy still, worthy to join my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, and Jarena Lee. Why? Why should I deem this seemingly wanton woman “holy”?
As a professional dancer whose toes have bled through my pointe shoes and whose body wasted away in ballet classes, I think of Duncan each time my bare and unbound feet step onto the dance floor. Modern dance set me free. As a lesbian who thought for so many years that marrying a man would be the only way I could be ordained, acceptable, holy, valid, I think of Duncan each Sunday when I step into the pulpit as the preacher of the only Baptist church in the country with two lesbians as head pastors. Fluid sexuality set me free. As a queer feminist scholar of religion who seeks to reject, deconstruct, and revalue what has been used to oppress, marginalize, and violate, I think of Duncan when I read Nietzsche, scripture, theology. Her approach to religion set me free.
So, it was no surprise that, with bare feet and an open heart, I painted a canvas filled with the flow of nature. A dancing woman stands center stage, her arms outstretched in natural, free, and unbound movement, as her heart cries out to us:
For the freedom of women she danced,
Her heart beating to the pulse of the universe…
And with her dance
She changed the world…
She changed the world of dance. She changed the world of religion. She changed the world of women. For these things, we will never forget Holy Isadora.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. In 2013, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com