Expanding through Space and into the World

In a chapter entitled “The Search for Motion” in her book Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt writes of Duncan: “She thought of herself as a dynamo” (90). Referencing the early twentieth-century cultural fixation on electricity, Jowitt claims that Duncan’s use of her solar plexus as the center of her movement fulfilled a popular image of a “charged and vibrant body.” These associations of the body with electrical power were even more marked in the case of Fuller, who was dubbed “the Electricity Fairy” during the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. In order to keep the fabric of her costume in the air, Fuller had to become a literal dynamo, repeatedly generating a constant supply of loft and momentum. Inspired by new ideas about energy and light, these dancers thought about their movements as waves vibrating into space. Although they channeled the scientific and aesthetic discoveries of their time in very different directions, Fuller and Duncan shared the ability to mobilize the space around them.

These dancers shared a core physical experience: the exchange between expansion andLoie Fuller contraction and the resultant opening up or condensing of the space around them. In Duncan’s movement, this most often took the form of simple under-curves and over-curves, punctuated by vibrant extensions of the upper body out into space around her. In Fuller’s dancing, the central torque of her body launched the silks into the air, and she rode that cycle of momentum and flight into increasingly complex figure eights. Both Fuller and Duncan harnessed their breath (inspiration) to elaborate this cycle of suspension and release with
in their movement phrasing as well.

Both Fuller and Duncan started with a bodily practice, producing a physical language that focused on breath rhythms, the dynamic use of the torso, and the articulation of gestures that galvanized space in new ways. In addition, they articulated the cultural potency of their artistic work in manifestos (Fuller’s “Light and the Dance” and Duncan’s “The Dancer and Nature“) that described the meanings of their life missions.

Classroom Activities

  • Move: Working in a studio or gym space, have the students lie down on the floor, curled to one side. Ask the students to begin to extend their bodies into the space around them by using their breath (inhalation and exhalation) to motivate the movement. Ask them to attend to the differences between extending their core spine and extending and folding their limbs. Then have the students work beyond their own reach space by extending and moving through the space of the room. What is the difference between extension and expansion?
  • Choreograph: Have the students experiment with dancing with a scarf or long piece of light material (silk) or a ribbon stick. Ask them to explore which kinds of movements create the longest suspensions of the fabric in the air.
  • Write: Using large sheets (or rolls) of paper, have the students draw the lines in space created by the silk or ribbon of the exercise above. What do those drawings tell us about capturing movement on the page? How do they compare to the artistic representations of Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan?

Final Discussion

Bringing in all the modes of inquiry that we have used in this module – movement explorations, historical readings, visual analyses and discussions of the autobiographical and artistic manifestos – discuss what we have learned about these two exemplars of ‘Modern Motion.’


Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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