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  • Isadora Goes to Europe as the "Muse of Modernism":Modern Dance, Gender, and the Active Female Body
  • Patricia Vertinsky†

In 1899, American author Kate Chopin published The Awakening in which the female protagonist is given a central role in a meditation on identity and culture, consciousness and art.1 The sea and its seductive potency play a central role in awakening our heroine to her feminist views—its voice speaks to her soul—and in a bid for freedom from the perceived constraints of fin de siècle society she swims out to sea and drowns herself. It was a story about female independence and bodily emancipation the public was not ready to hear and Chopin's literary reputation never recovered in her lifetime. Recently rediscovered by feminist literary scholars, The Awakening calls attention to the feminist argument in which the vast sea of the century's male canon is newly identified as a female bodily entity whose very gender claims subvert a masculinist ethos. "Chopin's sea is both of woman and for her"—a vast aquatic female acreage reflecting the ways in which the New Woman movement of the 1890s was enabling the female sphere conceptually and operationally.2 Now we can see the heroine as a health seeker and a swimmer in partnership with a seductive sea that has been feminized as a maternal body. American modern dancer, [End Page 19] Isadora Duncan, exploring the gendered boundaries of her own world at the very same time, was also seduced by the sea: "I was born by the sea and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. … [M]y life and my art were born of the sea."3 But while Chopin consigned her heroine to the sea's protective maternal depths, Isadora traversed it multiple times to broaden her opportunities for physical expression, freedom from the constraints of her gender and fame.4 In 1899 she crossed the Atlantic and established her career as expressive dancer and educator in a changing Europe long before her own country fully accepted her feminist ideas and her views about dancing and the female body. "It was Isadora," stated dance historian Paul Magriel on the twentieth anniversary of her death, who, through her dancing, "first brought to Europe and then to her own country, a new attitude."5 European audiences showed a much greater willingness than puritanical America to give the innovativeness of Isadora's dancing a sympathetic hearing. "Never shy of self promotion, she became the prototype of the uninhibited young American whose freshness and originality charmed jaded old Europe."6 Making her home there for most of her adult life, she moved often through the cities of Europe, especially between Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg where she established schools of dance. En route, she captivated audiences with her barefoot dancing, indulged in free love, took up with political radicals and leading artists of the day, experienced more than her fair share of personal tragedies and earned the nickname "Isadorable Drunken" for her excesses. It is quite certain, said the New York Times shortly after her untimely death in Nice in 1927, "that no other American woman has so impressed the world outside of America—made such a mighty stir, commanded such a following at home and abroad, left behind her such a legend of personality and such a trail of effects."7

My project in this paper follows Kate Chopin's trope in subverting the male canon by shifting the sport historian's gaze from Pierre de Coubertin's aristocratic vision for the making of men through sport and physical culture in fin de siècle Europe, to the Europe that embraced Isadora Duncan's modern dancing and feminist politics and its accommodation to new approaches to movement and physical expression. The revival of the Olympic games in 1896 was only one aspect of the unparalleled interest in physical culture and fascination with the classical Greek ideal of the body that consumed both Europe and North America at this time. In the leap from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, bodily practices were a potent barometer of cultural transition...


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