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10 Myths About Duncan Dance
by Valerie Durham
1. Anybody Can Do It.
Many audience members after watching a performance of Duncan choreography often comment, ˛I could do that.˛ And while one of Duncan Dance˛s most beautiful gifts is its ability to inspire and empower each individual on a personal level with its ease and simplicity, there is nothing ˛easy˛ about Duncan Dance.
The Duncan art form is based in the free-flow and organic movements of humanity˛s universal activities: walking, running, kneeling, reclining, skipping, leaping. It is a crafted study and artistic rendering of the human soul. Lines are pure and simple. Gestures and movements are stripped of all artifice. Every kink, every stiffness, every habitual tick that invades the everyday person˛s body, must be trained out of the Duncan Dancer, leaving nothing but absolute purity of expression.
When Michaelangelo sculpted David, he chipped away every protrusion, smoothed every excess and refined every detail to reveal only the pure beauty of that standing figure. So too does a Duncan Dancer study and train to dance only the most essential, only the most beautiful, only the most pure. The result in what you see -- ease, grace, passion, expressiveness -- looks easy only because Duncan Dancers work so hard to find and express the truth of each movement.
2. Isadora Improvised All Her Dancing; There Is No Choreography.
From all reports, Isadora was a marvel on the stage. In performance she was unlike any other, enrapturing her audiences with her new form of dance. She was the first to perform to pieces of music not expressly written for dance, shocking much of the art world. Isadora insisted that her dance was like a visual manifestation of the entire orchestra ˛ her legs expressed the rhythm and her upper body the melody.
Isadora˛s technique involves a sense of complete harmony with, even a slight reaction to, the music. Duncan instructors often urge dancers to hear the music, then move; if anything, ˛be late.˛
In addition to her seeming ˛reaction˛ to the music (a Duncan Dancer is always completely in tune with the music, and times her movements to be harmonious), Isadora used in particular the focus of the eyes and the solar plexus, to initiate movement. Therefore, she would look, breathe and then move, creating the impression that she had just had the idea to move a particular direction, and her movement would be so harmonious with the music, it looked and felt like the music had filled her and she had been half-carried and had half-driven the music across the stage in her movements and gestures.
3. There Is No Technique.
Partially as a result of the improvisational feel of her choreography, and partially due to her sudden death without having established a permanent school, many dancers, choreographers and art lovers of today believe there is no technique to Duncan Dance. This falsehood is compounded by the practice of many Duncan devotees (not Duncan Dancers) who embrace the ˛freedom˛ of Duncan Dance, without the discipline, without the technique. These are the performers who skip about a stage, wildly flinging arms, feeling very free themselves, but in doing so, do not convey any feelings of freedom (or gravity, movement, rage, sadness, lightness, swing, lift, etc.) to the audience.
Isadora studied the effect of each movement. She spent long hours in the studio, hands folded over her breast, waiting for the inspiration for movement. She found it in the solar plexus as the internal motor of movement. From there (in some accounts, even from childhood), Isadora studied the ˛how˛ of all movements, lifting the leg from the ground, reclining, sitting in a chair, rising from the ground, leaping. She watched waves in the ocean, trees swaying in the breeze, the flight of insects, the movements of animals to learn the most natural ways of moving.
Isadora also studied Greek and Renaissance art, including paintings, friezes, sculpture, pottery, to achieve the natural, weighted, strong movements of the Greek figure. She considered the Greek ideal to be the most beautiful because it was the most natural. Her dancing was not ˛Greek,˛ it was that the Greeks were the closest to having it ˛right.˛
The Duncan Dancer goes through rigorous training to achieve the Duncan technique. In addition to artistic expression, the livening of the eyes and hands, the Duncan Dancer must learn to initiate all movement from the chest. The end of each movement leads into the beginning of the next ˛ a movement never ˛ends.˛
The foot and calf are extremely important in the Duncan technique. The Duncan Dancer must be able to dance and work through all range of motion, from the demi plie through relevee, not hitting a ˛position˛ as in ballet, but working through all the infinite positions between the two extremes. The foot leaves the earth with a natural ˛peeling˛ away, not a forced action of pointing or flexing. As the leg/knee is lifted, the foot naturally peels away from the earth. The faster the leg pushes or lifts away from the earth, the more pointed a foot may become, but not through a deliberate action to achieve a pointed foot, but rather to provide the related, necessary amount of force to push away from the earth and gravity.
Another example of the Duncan technique is the lift of the arms. Again,
gravity and weight are extremely important in the Duncan technique, and the
technique is shaped to show the pull away and the give in to gravity. One arm
movement lifts from the upper part of the arm, elbows hooked toward the sky,
lower arms and hands dripping toward the earth. At about mid-height, the chest
lifts against the drip of the lower arms, and then the arms are free to lift all
the way up. Arms are always only lifted in concert with the corresponding lift
of the chest, the face and the eyes. All lines ˛ arms, eye focus, chest and face
˛ should be parallel. This creates a more powerful image of ˛up˛ than just
reaching one˛s arms up.
The Duncan technique is taught around the world, and the barre, floor and moving exercises established by Isadora in her various schools show up in classes taught by teachers who have never met. A true Duncan Dancer is clearly identified by the freedom and lift of her chest, the weighted power of her arms and legs, the precise and expressive use of music.
4. When Isadora Died, Her Dancing Died With Her.
Isadora died unexpectedly, in a dreadful car accident, at the age of 49 in 1927. At the time, she was relatively estranged from her six adopted daughters (who had formed the troupe of dancers who performed with her) and did not have an established school. Isadora had established several schools during her career, and a school of dance and life for all children, all people, was one of her greatest aims.
Some of Isadora˛s choreographies (and obviously her incomparable genius) died with her, but three of the six ˛Isadorables˛ ˛ Irma, Anna and Therese ˛ knew many of Isadora˛s choreographies, had been performing them for many years and had been studying with Isadora and teaching her technique for many years as well. These three took up the call to continue I