Rebel to Redeemed: My Love for Duncan Dance
One of my earliest memories is sitting in the corner of a humongous dance studio with a coloring book, keeping myself occupied while my mom and other grown-ups swirled, ran, and leapt to music of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Gluck, reverberating from the boom-box next to me. I was 3 years old, and the studio was probably not humongous since it was in Manhattan, but in my memory it’s the size of a soccer field.
I remember all the bare feet, and the sound of those feet against the floor. Incredibly shy at the time, I sat quietly and simply took it all in, occasionally taking breaks from drawing to watch the dancers.
Accompanying my mother to Isadora Duncan rehearsals and performances was a way of life. I was dragged to performances that felt like they lasted 5 hours, and I remember sitting in the front row counting down the number of dance pieces in the program that I still had to sit through. (To be fair, my mom later told me those shows WERE incredibly long–up to 2.5 hours sometimes!)
Yet I was not always the spectator, I was given plenty of opportunities to perform as well, for which I am most grateful.
My mom and two aunts were all Duncan dancers, and had trained in that specific style of dance since their childhoods. Anna Duncan, one of Isadora Duncan’s adopted daughters taught them, along with 3 other neighborhood children, in their family home in Queens, NY. In addition to Anna Duncan, Julia Levien and Hortense Kooluris were their primary teachers. While these names hold great merit and honor in the Duncan dance community, to me Julia and Hortense were just family. We visited Hortense in her beautiful New Jersey home where I frolicked around in her backyard, and Julia lived across the street from us in NYC and often coached me in my childhood Duncan solo, Tanagra Waltz.
But after I turned 8 years old, things slowly started to change. While I continued to perform Duncan dances on the weekends, during the week I started training more seriously in ballet. I rarely mentioned my weekend performances to my friends at the School of American Ballet, because it was something different, and I was not proud of my unique Duncan heritage.
By the time I was a teenager, I pretty much had nothing to do with Duncan dance. It was one of those "weird" things my mom was into, like astrology or patterned leggings. My focus was only on ballet, and to be completely honest, Duncan felt a little “low-class”. Why would I care about running, skipping, and leaping when I could be perfecting my triple pirouettes on pointe? Simply put, I was not interested. Like, really not interested.
So–when did the switch happen? How did I go from not appreciating the style of Isadora Duncan to starting a company largely influenced by her work?
Well, I remember that exact moment clearly! I was backstage at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana–an incredible stage as large as the Met. I was a ballet major at Indiana University and coincidentally, the director of of the ballet program had planned a performance line-up that included the work of Isadora Duncan, which Lori Belilove had flown in to stage. In our Fall performances, I was dancing in the Duncan pieces as well as in Les Sylphides which former principal dancer with ABT, Cynthia Gregory, had flown in to stage.
I had a quick costume change between Les Sylphides and the Duncan pieces. I remember that singular moment, standing backstage with stillness and darkness all around me as a dresser stood behind me with a flashlight, pulling the hairpins out of my bun, as I balanced on one leg to rip off my pointe shoes –and the complete liberation I felt going on stage with bare feet.
Logically, that doesn’t make sense. I spent most of my waking hours of the day wearing pointe shoes. Pointe shoes weren’t painful or uncomfortable (because I had worn them for so many years). Yet there was something about taking off the pointe shoes that made me feel whole again–grounded and IN my body. I can’t really explain this, because pointe shoes were always pretty comfortable–especially because I had custom-fitted shoes to my feet! (Can you say ballet-obsessed?) But all I can say for sure is that I knew in that moment that I had to continue dancing the Duncan dances, and despite the constant ridiculing and complaining of the other ballet-majors around me (who felt as I did previously, that Duncan dancing was a joke), I started to develop a real appreciation and understanding of the art form I had grown up around.
I sought out coaching from my mother, Adrienne Ramm, who was incredibly patient with me as I worked to “undo” years of intense ballet training, since the Duncan style requires a level of freedom, especially in the upper body, that’s unknown to most ballet dancers. After college, I danced with other Duncan dance companies, including my aunt’s company, and got to re-live that feeling of freedom and liberation of performing Duncan’s work.
Realizing that I hold an incredible legacy at my fingertips is a major part of why RammDance is focused on continuing the work of Isadora Duncan into the future. All of those years of watching Duncan performances and rehearsals are still stored inside of me. Just as these dances have been passed down to me, I am passing them down to the next generation of dancers.
With my mother as Artistic Advisor of RammDance, I feel confident in bringing the authentic repertoire of Isadora Duncan alive today.
And that is my story of rebel (in the sweetest of ways) to redeemed, the origins of my connection to Duncan dance.