Isadora Duncan’s Dancing Soul

On May 26, 2012, Isadora Duncan celebrated her 135th birthday. On hand were Lori Belilove and the members of the Isadora Dance Company, performing at Judson Church, in New York City. I offered the following comments before the company’s inspired, rousing, and highly accomplished recreation of Duncan’s work. Happy Birthday, Isadora!

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“When, in its divine power, [the soul] completely possesses the body, it converts that into a luminous moving cloud and thus can manifest itself in the whole of its divinity.” (Isadora Duncan (1877-1927))

It is easy to be dazzled by Duncan’s soul-full prose, and then pause and realize that you have no idea what she is saying.

It is even easier, perhaps, to dismiss her religion language as the poetic flowering of a charismatic performer, waxing eloquent.

I invite us to be neither dazzled nor dismissive, but instead, to reflect deliberately, in particular on her use of the word “soul.” Duncan’s soul language occurs regularly and significantly throughout her writings; “awakening soul,” she claims, is the “first step in dancing.” 

I’d like to consider the possibility that Duncan, in her soul language, was engaging philosophical and theological ideas in sophisticated ways, conscious of the fact that doing so was integral to her mission of realizing the potential of dance as art.

For help, I turn to the philosopher whom Duncan cites more than any other throughout her essays and speeches: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Duncan read Nietzsche in 1902, after having earned acclaim in London and Paris, after her first trip to Greece, and before writing most of what we have by her on record. As Duncan describes the experience: the “seduction” of Nietzsche’s philosophy “ravished my being.”

Reading her reading of Nietzsche has convinced me that Duncan uses soul language in ways that  critically advance Nietzsche’s project of revaluing Christian values. Even more than using the word “soul” to say something about dance, she uses dance to say something about soul—to revalue its meaning–to dislodge the dualism that pits soul or mind over and against the body, and that excludes dancing from the realm of our highest ideals and aspirations.

Duncan read at least two of Nietzsche’s texts: his first book: Birth of Tragedy, which she called her “Bible”; and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a dog-eared copy of which she carried around with her for the rest of her life.

Here I focus on the first. In this “Bible” we find a link between Duncan’s soul language and Nietzsche’s project of revaluing values.

Nietzsche was a philologist. He taught Greek and Latin, language and literatures. In Birth, his doctoral dissertation, he wrote about the Attic tragedies of ancient Greece (5th C BCE). He asked: how were these Greek tragedies effective in catalyzing an affirmation of life?

For Nietzsche, the question was existential. The son and grandson of German Lutheran ministers, expected to carry on the family tradition, he was dismayed by what he perceived as the Christian hostility to life. In response to the pain and suffering of Jesus’s death, the Christianity he knew turned against bodies, desires, art, nature, and the rhythms of becoming, condemning them as sinful things of this world, and encouraging church members to set their sights on a spiritual life-after-death in heaven.

Nietzsche, like Duncan, turns to the Greeks for an alternative morality. For him, Greek tragedy offers a different response to the inevitable, often devastating suffering of life. Rather than deny it, or seek escape from it, Greek tragedy stages a ritual experience of it in which participants contemplate the worst of life—even the death of a god—in such a way that they emerge with a renewed passion for living this bodily life, here on earth. Nietzsche calls this effect a “magic transformation.”

Nietzsche’s answer to how tragedy works its magic is one that few commentators get right. Duncan does, for the answer lies in the dancing of the chorus.

Here is Duncan: “At the sublime moment of the tragedy, when sorrow and suffering were most acute, the Chorus would appear. Then the soul of the audience, harrowed to the point of agony, was restored to harmony by the elemental rhythms of song and movement. The Chorus gave to the audience the fortitude to support those moments that otherwise would have been too terrible for human endurance.” 

The key are those elemental rhythms. For Nietzsche, these rhythms “work” by establishing a visceral identification with the soul of the spectators. A spectator, wrenched raw by the tragic tale, is vulnerable. His senses are open. So primed, he cannot help but be moved by the pulse of singing and dancing. He cannot help feeling movement responses arising inside himself. And feeling his own movement response, he cannot help but experience its power: the comfort of his own creative, creating life.

As a result, the dancing and singing of the chorus catalyze a shift in a spectator’s experience of her bodily self. She experiences herself as moving and as being moved by something that is larger than herself—something that is moving in her, through her, extending beyond her, creating through her, in the shape of her, and making her into the individual that she is. She experiences herself as godlike, as dancing. Her soul is “restored to harmony.”

What is remarkable about this experience shift, for both Duncan and Nietzsche, is that a person experiences his own dissolution into an indifferent “Nature,” as comforting because that dissolving happens in and through the bodily movement he is making—movements are also waking him up to his own vitality, his own sensory creativity.

Nietzsche describes this effect as Dionysian. And for Nietzsche, the exemplar of such a person who can and does dance is Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the dancer; Zarathustra, who came to teach humans how to overcome themselves and love life.

After reading Nietzsche, Duncan consistently describes her mission in Nietzschean terms. She sought to realize his vision for dance as the “very soul of tragedy”—the Dionysian moment among the arts. She wanted her dancing to empower people to respond creatively, affirmatively, to whatever narrative life throws their way, by giving them a visceral, lived experience of their own participation in the creation of what is. She consistently used the word “soul” to refer to the sensory awareness that that the experience of moving and being moved by elemental rhythms awakens in us.

Reading Duncan’s reading of Nietzsche, then, sheds light on the meaning and significance of her soul language in the opening quotation.

When she describes soul as a “power,” that power is “within.” This power is within our bodily selves, not as liquid in a cup, but as the potential to flower enfolded in a seed. This power is a potential that can grow, or not.

Moreover, as a power, is not a power over our bodily selves but a power of perceiving with and through our bodily selves. An ability to perceive movement visually and viscerally—not just through the five senses but through a kinetic sense. To awaken soul is to experience our own vulnerability to movement—to feel a spontaneous impulse to move, and move with it.

Further, to say that this soul—this power of kinetic sensibility—“completely possesses” the body, is to say that we can cultivate it along every cell and surface of our bodily form. When we do, for Duncan, it is as if the body becomes a “luminous moving cloud”: our bodily selves come to life. We start to experience ourselves as connected to all of the moments in our lives that move us to move—as partially dissolved into the very medium that our individual being expresses.

So too, the “divinity” of this soul is not derived by its relationship to some Wholly Other. The reverse is true. It is our bodily movements that reveal the divinity of our soul. It is our bodily movements—movements received and recreated—that grant us a sense of a visible, visceral connection to whatever lies beyond us. And that beyond is something that we can only know by virtue of the bodily movements we feel impelled to make. Movements flowing from this “awakened soul” express a connection to a rhythmic continuity” or unity of which we ourselves are one, kinetic-image-making moment.

Said otherwise, for Duncan, “divinity” is something that we can come to conceive and know only in and through our own bodily movements if and when and as we move with an awakened “soul.” We know “it” through the kinetic images we make of “it” as that which impels us to move.

Elsewhere, Duncan locates this kinetic sensibility in the solar plexus. Yet here again, it is not that “the soul” is some spiritual entity that rests under our ribs. Rather, Duncan claims that at the crossing of our own beating and breathing rhythms, we are particularly vulnerable to sensing and receiving and responding to movement impulses. As a result, we can choose to focus our attention on the solar plexus as a way to awaken a sensory awareness capable of pervading a whole bodily self.

The movements of Duncan’s technique do so—they draw a dancer’s attention to the solar plexus, trace patterns of movement through it, so as to educate her senses to the possibility of making movements that flow into and through our bodily selves, like the movements of the breath. 

In her soul language, then, we see Duncan working to revalue western, Christian values where they have historically authorized the demotion and marginalization of dance. Nietzsche himself was not interested in elevating dance as an art. Rather he uses dance as a reference point, enabling practice, and metaphor for leveraging change in a system of values that he finds hostile to life. Yet it is for this reason that Duncan was so entranced with his work. As she insists, dancing, for Nietzsche, is not about steps. It is about “the exaltation of life.”

To awaken soul—to learn to dance—is to know that how we move matters. How we move matters to who we are, what we value, and what the world is able to become through us. Every moment, in every thing we do, we are making the movements that bring the world, our ideals, our values, and even our gods, into being.

Implicit in Duncan’s soul language is a challenge that remains relevant today: to find in dance what Duncan calls “the foundation of a complete conception of life.” To do so is to ask of our every value, every belief, every practice, and every god: Does it encourage us to dance? Does it support us in unfolding our potential to move and be moved? Does it dance?

If not, then we have more work to do, more souls to awaken, more divinity to reveal, and more joy to know.

 

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., is the author of Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values

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