When she was ten years old, Isadora Duncan dropped out of school to teach people dance.
Now, had she been anyone other than herself, that stint would likely have turned out like most of our own ambitious pursuits at that age: frustrating, difficult, and a little discouraging.
But Duncan was different. Not only was she already incredibly talented (enough to command money for her work even at that age), but she also had a rare kind of confidence that treated setbacks as fuel – something to nourish and elevate the fire already burning inside of her.
It’s likely no surprise, then, that when she moved to New York to join a theatre company, she found herself constrained. The rigidity of the existing style, their way of operating – all of this seemed to her the work of a misguided past, one that didn’t cherish movement as an art.
Her intuition was right, and the journey she took over the next few years and decades, throughout European cities like Paris, Budapest, Berlin, and Athens, ultimately proved that.
Today, she is remembered as “The Mother of Dance,” with much of the modern art owing its fluid, expressive style to her influence. Inspired by the ancient Greeks, she brought it to life.
While Duncan never finished her formal education, learning in her own time was always a big part of how she lived, and it was partly this drive that manifested as original expression.
Whether it’s at work, or through hobbies, or simply in the way that we live, we, too, are always expressing fragments of who we are. A big part of living a fulfilling life is doing so in a way that is true. In this department, we can look to Duncan, who embodied it by:
- Seeing inspiration as a form of freedom
- Recognizing the one-sidedness of criticism
- Accepting the immoderation of genius
An expression is a physical form we give to a part of ourselves, connecting us to the world.
See inspiration as a form of freedom
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the clock has become its own deity. It tells us when we start work, when we eat, when we move, when we sleep, when we connect – when we live.
This is so normal for us today that we forget that, in many ways, it isn’t normal at all. The obsession with time, habits, rigidity, and routine is relatively recent. In a pre-capitalist society, we had some form of these things, sure, but they didn’t control us like they do today.
In some ways, they have worth. In fact, they even generate freedom. We all have things we need to do, things we can’t get around, and this kind of organization lets us satisfy them.
At the same time, only living in an environment where this is the norm also dulls inspiration.
In her autobiography, one of the things Duncan consistently refers to as the bedrock of her expressive spirit is the fact that she had a childhood where she wasn’t constantly watched.
They didn’t have much growing up, and the expectations of her mother (who raised her) were open-ended. Beyond playing music for her kids and spending time with them, she didn’t push any agenda, letting them explore their own world, create their own adventures.
It was the freedom of this lifestyle at an early age, along with never having predetermined commitments (other than surviving and getting by), that drove her to see what she could do.
Inspiration has two faces: the first is a product of action, when you actually sit down to produce something, say, like a piece of writing or a piece of music; the second, the one that fuels the first, however, is born out of a will to freedom and exploration in a nonlinear way.
Inspiration is an expressive manifestation of freedom, and it’s not found in places with walls. The modern world has a bias towards structure, which does have a place, but for that structure to produce something of value, it needs the fuel in pockets of undefined space.
Recognize the one-sidedness of criticism
Even in her teenage years, Duncan was very direct about what she wanted, confidently telling people she had a different vision of dance that she was going to spread in the world.
This, naturally, led to ridicule and laughs early on, but as she built up her work, her skills, and her image, these instances became less frequent. That said, even then, she had her critics.
On one occasion, she invited a man, who had said nasty things about her, to watch her in person. She felt bad about what he had said, but she was also adamant that she could change his mind if he saw her do her work in person. Except, that’s not what happened.
But the reason for this, she discovered, had nothing to do with her: the man was near-deaf and could barely hear the music she was dancing to, only seeing one side of the act.
Given that Duncan’s big revolution in dance was how her movement connected itself to the music, the emotion, and the space in the room – in the way that previously mechanical styles didn’t – not hearing the music meant that he wasn’t really even seeing the performance.
The act of expressing yourself is an act of differentiation, and people at different skill and competence levels differentiate themselves in various ways that don’t work for everyone.
Whether it’s in art or in a conversation, expression is a two-person game. There is the person expressing themselves and then there is the receiver, who has to do their part.
Good, productive criticism, of course, is vital for feedback and improvement, but only if it’s coming from someone who actually understands what you are trying to do. If you are not even on the same wavelength, then it’s not worth feeling bad about what someone says.
Any time you embody a part of yourself into physical form via expression, you’re opening yourself up to both connection and miscommunication. And there’s an important distinction.
Accept the immoderation of genius
When we use the term genius, we think of it as a noun, something that represents a person or a group of people, as if it’s a way of being. But genius is humbler than that. It’s a verb.
Nobody is a genius all the time, and nobody is a genius in every context, but most of us have sprinkles of it that show themselves when we have done the work for it to manifest. People like Duncan embodied it more often than the average person, sure, but even they had limits.
Growing up, before she left school, she was told one of two things: that she was either completely useless or that she had a spectacular mind. There was nothing in between. Even when she started working, people either bowed to her or they basically ignored her.
There is an old quote often attributed to Albert Einstein (he likely didn’t say that, though) that says something like: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” And it captures an important truth, easily ignored.
Genius isn’t sprinkled into us in moderation at birth, where if you have it, it’s always a part of you, shining through in all that you do. There are some reliable tests in the psychological literature that measure a form of it (IQ) well, and it does count for a lot, but it’s not enough.
More often than not, genius is immoderate, and its manifestation depends on the person, yes,- what they are born with, what their skill level is – but it also depends on the situation.
At school, Isadora Duncan was a failure. In the dancehall, she gave form to brilliance.
The best we can do is tilt our experience towards the direction of the immoderation rather than getting stuck in a place that we can neither give something to or get something from.
All you need to know
Every action we take is a form of expression. It takes the cloudy amalgamation of experience we have accumulated in our mind and gives it a concrete form in the world around us.
Isadora Duncan isn’t a familiar name outside of some artistic circles, but whether directly or indirectly, most of us have at some point felt her influence via the lifeforce of her expression.
Here are three things we can learn from her:
I. See inspiration as a form of freedom. Production and creation require things like routine and schedule and structure, but if that’s all you have, then whatever it is that is expressed through your production and your creation won’t be truly alive. Inspiration is an embodiment of freedom, and it lives in a world without walls.
II. Recognize the one-sidedness of criticism. Expression, naturally, opens itself up to criticism. While criticism is a valuable form of feedback, one that should consistently be taken into account, the source of the criticism matters. If someone isn’t even seeing or hearing you, what they have to say isn’t relevant to the world you live in.
III. Accept the immoderation of genius. Genius isn’t a way of being. It’s more of an act, and it comes through when a person with certain skills and abilities is matched to the right environment. Nobody is a genius everywhere, and almost all of us have some immoderate form of it. The task is to recognize where that is and double down on it.
People use all kinds of words and labels to describe who they think they are, but the only evidence of who we are is in what we express when we interact with the surrounding world.
A movement itself is an expression, and in every moment, it recreates the unsayable.
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