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Come Children, Let’s Dance

September 1924 — Kamerny Theatre, Moscow, USSR


I am very sorry I cannot speak Russian. I am an American, and it would really be more easy for me to address you in English. I shall speak in German, however, because I am sure most of the audience present understand German, and also because Mr. Schneider can translate from this language into Russian all that I am going to tell you about my Art, my Life, my School. You must all forgive me, if I seem somewhat egotistical, as I am going to speak about myself, but my Life is so tightly bound up with my Art, it is so much one and the same that I must always refer to it.

I was born in American in the town of San Francisco on the day when a revolution broke out in that town. Of course the revolution was a “golden” one; it was the “golden” day in San Francisco when all the banks went bankrupt. The furious crowds stormed in the streets. On the day of this catastrophe my mother, from one moment to another, expected my birth. She told me afterwards that she was are that the child she 33tted was going to be something extraordinary in life. My father was also concerned in this bankers’ catastrophe. Our house was surrounded by a threatening crowd, and all this worry, excitement, and fear, my mother thought, was sure to have some effect on the child she was expecting. That is why she believed I was going to be something extraordinary. 

After these stormy days, my mother was left to Fate with four small children on her hands. Although an educated woman, she was only able to earn a bit of bread for herself and her children by giving music lessons. Of course her earnings were small and not sufficient to feed her children. When I remember my childhood, I see before me an empty house. My mother at her lessons, we children sat alone, mostly hungry, and in winters mostly cold. Although our mother couldn’t give us physical food, she did give us enough spiritual food. we forgot our hunger and cold when she played Schubert and Beethoven to us or else read Shakespeare, Shelley, Browning. 

When I was little, I had no toys or childish fun. I often ran away alone into the woods or on to the beach by the sea, and there I danced. I felt then that my shoes and my clothes hindered me. My heavy shoes felt like chains, and my clothes were my prison. So I took everything off. And without any eyes watching me, all alone, I danced quite naked by the sea, and it seemed to me as if the sea and all the trees were dancing with me. . . .

As my mother was very poor, and we often did not have the money for the most necessary needs of life, our neighbors, who were aware of my dancing talent, advised my mother to let me dance before the public, so that I might earn money. And so, out of necessity, I was forced, a   four-year-old child, to dance before the public. That is why I don’t like children to dance before the public for money, as I experienced what it meant to dance for a piece of bread. But the same necessity which brought me, as a four-year-old child, on the stage, rings the children of our School before the public. Nothing to eat; no money to pay the water and electricity ills. Fo the support of our School we are forced to give performances. But I beg you, when you look at the children, not to see in them little actors against the backdrop of theatrical scenery. I want you to see them against a backdrop of nature, where they can dance freely on the meadow and among the trees. I am showing you now only a small group of children, because the house where our school is currently situated has only a small dancing hall. There is room for not more than twenty children there. But that is not enough. I want to give to the future thousands of happy, healthy children.

[The children danced to Schubert’s Requiem March]

What fine, beautiful children they are, are they not? But I want all the children in Russia to be like that. After books, after study, I want to say to them all: “Come now, children, let us dance!” I want every child in Russia to have this naturalness, this joy, this beauty, which ought to be theirs. I regret that I can give my art and my work only to a small group of children. 

Have you ever read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile? He says there that a child lives each day a very intensive and beautiful life, and that we must give the child the possibility of making use of this. I don’t “teach” children. I have no special systems and methods. I don’t say to the child, ‘Hold your hand so, or put your foot so.” You have seen yourself that every child dances naturally. You saw that their movements are not taught; that they grow like plants, that they unfold like flowers. 

Little children don’t understand verbal teaching. Words, for children, are not alive. Little children learn through movements. Children up to the age of ten or twelve learn more from the soul. But nobody believes anymore in the soul. So I say they learn from the spirit, from intuition. I have noticed that the smallest children understand Beethoven and Schubert, but they could never understand them through words, only through movements. They form themselves as naturally as plants, with all their feelings. The life of a child changes all the time, changes continually, and every pedagogue who wants to, adapts himself to the child who is like a plant, never static, continually growing. The pedagogue should give the child something new every day.

To-day you have seen how every child expresses the same dance differently. One must approach each child separately, as each child is different from the other.

I hate muscles, arms, and legs. I never say to a child: “Hold yourself so; do so.” I don’t like physical culture, sports. I do not like the Dalcroze system. I find that as sin, and a crime committed against the nature of children. A child needs something quite different. It needs naturalness without pressure, without influence. It is not necessary to subject it to any demands. The child should, by itself, like a plant, unfold to the light, to the sun.

Here in our head is knowledge, thought: here in our breast is a motor which supplies power for our most wonderful emotions. I say to the child: “Put your hands here on your breast, then lift them high and higher to the stars, to the planets. Embrace the whole world with your arms. Reach out to the Universe. You are only a small child, but you stand on the earth. There is a place for you in the Universe.”

Some Communists have told me that all this is “mystic.” Arms outstretched to the stars are “mystic.” But I teach the children to look up above them, to look around, to be conscious of the whole Universe . . .  Is that mysticism? No, I have no mysticism. I say to the child: “Look at the world, the whole universe dances together with you, the human being. Man, different from all the other animals, holds up his head, while his feet remain on the Earth. 

Soon the children will come before you with simple movements, and you must imagine that it is night and that they are looking at the stars. I say to the children: “When you run out into the woods or into the garden, try to keep yourselves free, in harmony with nature. Go and enjoy yourselves; jump, play, laugh, and be boisterous.” But I am not of the opinion of some of your pedagogues that they ought to be left entirely to themselves, screaming and fighting each other like wild Indians. No, the child must learn self-control; learn to express its feelings harmoniously. That will make it grow stronger than those children who are left to grow up wildly without learning to control themselves. To let a child develop itself through a dynamic dance is difficult, but to force it to hold it musical pause, as the children have just done in the Schubert march they danced for you, is still more difficult. I have noticed afterwards that they gained more strength from that than from the dynamic dance.

I want very much to know what your opinion of my educational system? The greatest compliment to my School would be if every mother in the audience said, “I would also like my child to dance like that.” I went to Russia hoping to create something big, something grandiose. The word Bolshevik — meaning big, I thought, inflamed me when I heard it in Europe. I imagined that it would be possible to create a school of a thousand children here. All I needed for that was a big place to work in. And now three years have passed, and I have waited in vain.

When I came to Russia, I did not have the intention of giving public performances. During these three years I have asked those in power to give me a large heated place in winter, and a big arena in summer, where I could teach a thousand children my art. These children here, that you have just admired, are mostly children of workers and peasants. Are they not beautiful? And does it not prove that they can be cultured and intelligent?

I desire to give the greatest joy and the greatest beauty to the children of the workers. To make them so perfect that they will be envied by the millionaire children. You have surely heard the legend of Cornelia, wherein pearls and diamonds were compared to the natural beauty of children. I would like to have the workers say, when they see thousands of children dancing in a great folk-festival: “These are our jewels!”

I am afraid I have tortured you this evening with my lecture. You would have, of course, preferred seeing the children dance some more. But, as it was our intention to show what we have achieved so far, your slight suffering was necessary, and maybe the foundation for the future school. You Russians love discussion, therefore I beg you to voice your opinions.

[A voice from the audience: “Why are there no boys among your pupils?”]

I wanted very much to have five hundred boys and five hundred girls in my school. For my school is a school of life and not a school of dancing. It is a current opinion that dancing is feminine’s and therefore only girls have joined my school. But I, personally, would have preferred boys, for they are better ale to express the heroism of which we have so much need in this Age.



Source: Isadora Duncan’s Russian Days and Her Last Years in France, by Irma Duncan and Allan Ross Macdougall (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd), p. 281-289.