Isadora Ain’t Foolin’ Me Any

“If she goes pulling off her clothes and throwin’ them in the air like she did in Boston, there's gonna be somebody getting a ride in the paddy wagon.”

In 1927, Isadora Duncan said “Let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance.” They say she invented modern dance. She did not survive America.

Instead of wearing ballet slippers, Duncan danced barefoot and wrapped herself in scarves. She believed all movement originated from the solar plexus, and her explosive gestures scandalized crowds, as did her politics, which were inspired by Plato’s The Republic and the theory of evolution. These were the Red Scare days when being a Darwinist was a controversial thing, let alone being an atheist bisexual feminist Marxist. She was banned in Boston after removing her red sash while dancing. “This is red and so am I!” she shouted to the audience, baring her breasts. Life became difficult for Duncan after that. In Washington DC, a group of evangelists demanded that she be deported. Newspapers ran headlines calling her a Bolshevik. Several cities cancelled her shows.

In 1922, Duncan performed in Indianapolis. “Isadora ain’t foolin’ me any,” mayor Lew Shank told the press before she arrived. “She talks about art. Huh! I’ve seen a lot of these twisters and I know as much about art as any man in America, but I never went to see these nude dancers for art’s sake. No, sir, I’ll bet that ninety percent of men who go to see these so-called classical dancers just say they think it’s artistic to fool their wives. No, sir, these nude dancers don’t get by me. If she goes pulling off her clothes and throwin’ them in the air, as she is said to have done in Boston, there’s going to be somebody getting a ride in the wagon.”

Shank ordered several policemen to stand near the stage and monitor her performance. They had instructions to arrest her if she did anything remotely obscene. She did not. Her performance later that evening, however, is a different story. A drunken party at her hotel echoed through the night, culminating in a frightening crash early in the morning when she threw a piano over her balcony. Some say the piano was dropped on a dare. Others say Duncan threw a tantrum and threatened to give up music. Others say no piano was thrown at all, that the police made this up as an excuse to run her out of town. Either way, she was told to never return to Indianapolis.

Perhaps this is a good time to mention that Mayor Shank was a former clog dancer and vaudeville performer who rose to fame when he dressed up as a little girl in a golden wig, climbing a ladder to heaven. Indianapolis elected him twice.

The FBI followed Duncan. Crowds booed her, yet they flocked to her shows. The American government revoked her citizenship and she fled to Europe where she made drunken scenes in Left Bank cafés, attracting the wrong sort of attention and on one occasion affording Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald the opportunity to steal a nice pair of salt and pepper shakers. Duncan’s life was tragic: Her two children drowned in a car that plunged into the Seine river. She married a young poet who committed suicide. Another child lived only a few hours and was never named. On September 14, 1927, Duncan was driving through the south of France when her red scarf got tangled in the rear hubcap of her convertible. She died instantly. Upon hearing the news of Duncan’s death, Gertrude Stein said “Affectations can be dangerous.”

This piece appears in The Manufactured History of Indianapolis, a collection of semi-fictions by James A. Reeves, published by We Are City in 2013.
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