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Duncan, Isadore

Category: Performer

all photos on this page by Arnold Genthe

Angela Isadora Duncan (May 26, 1877 or May 27, 1878 – September 14, 1927) was an American dancer. Born in California, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 49 or 50, when her scarf became entangled in the wheels and axle of the car in which she was riding.

From the point of view of this site she is of particular interest because she had premonitions, which were uncannily accurate; appeared to have extreme spiritual experiences from various forms of love and love making; and danced with the intention of receiving inspiration from a ‘higher power’.  Her dance style was entirely based on this approach.

Dancing with the spirit

Duncan developed a very personal innovative technique, which emphasized natural movement over the rigid technique of ballet or formal dance, using a great deal of improvisation.  Duncan placed an emphasis on "evolutionary" dance motion, in other words, each movement was born from the one that preceded it, that each movement gave rise to the next, and so on in organic succession. There was no choreography, as such.


It is clear that dance for her was its own inspiration, that through dance and music, she lost her sense of self and could thus ‘go with the muse’ – become spiritually inspired.

In 1910, Duncan met Aleister Crowley at a party. Crowley later wrote of Duncan:

"Isadora Duncan has this gift of gesture in a very high degree. Let the reader study her dancing, if possible in private than in public, and learn the superb 'unconsciousness'- which is magical consciousness - with which she suits the action to the melody."


Duncan believed she had traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art.  In a sense she was returning to the sort of dance used by shamanic and indigenous societies, very free, full of movement and requiring a great deal of energetic activity – frenetic dancing.  These days, we don’t look on this as being unusual or innovative, but for its time it was revolutionary.  Some women of her day still wore corsets and bustles and their idea of free movement was the foxtrot!

Furthermore all dance in the west from ballet to ballroom dancing had, at the time, lost its emotional content.  It was tackled more like a military exercise than an expression of any form of emotion.  Duncan's philosophy of dance moved away from this rigid approach to one in which emotions were fully displayed.  She believed dance was meant to express all that life had to offer, joy and sadness.

"I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement."

This is exemplified in her revolutionary costume of a white Greek tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Greek forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement corseted ballet costumes and pointe shoes did not.

While the dance schools in Europe that she founded did not last long, Isadora Duncan's work has had a lasting impact on dance.   


Of lust, love and ‘immorality’

Duncan was born in San Francisco, the youngest of the four children of Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922). She was thrust into the mire of the effects of immorality very early.  Soon after Isadora's birth, her father was exposed in illegal bank dealings, and the family became extremely poor.  Her parents divorced when she was an infant, and her mother moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a seamstress and piano teacher.


Like many performers and artists, musicians and the creative, Isadore Duncan was hopeless with money.  She caused her long suffering family a great deal of angst as a result.  Duncan so disliked the commercial aspects of public performance like touring and contracts, she virtually ignored them “because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty” – which is fine if you have someone to do it for you, but she didn’t, she had a swathe of lovers – male and female, but not a single reliable steady partner or manager, who could handle her finances.

For example, Duncan had been due to leave the US in 1915 on board the RMS Lusitania on the voyage on which it sank, but instead she sailed on the more humble Dante Alighieri, which left New York eight days later.  Despite the fact it would have been wonderful to say that this was due to a premonition, it was not, it was money: Her tour had been a financial disaster.  In fact, Duncan’s creditors had threatened to seize her trunks and keep her from leaving the country at all until she paid about $12,000 in debts racked up during her visit.

with Paris Singer, the father
of one of her children

Money was not the only weak point in Isadore’s life.  She was also amoral in all things sexual and she had a string of lovers and admirers – male and female.  One of the observations below describes the spiritual experience she obtained through one adoring soul.

Duncan had a relationship with Mercedes de Acosta, for example, which is documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other. Mercedes de Acosta (March 1, 1893 – May 9, 1968) was an American poet, playwright, and novelist. She was professionally unsuccessful but is known for her many lesbian affairs with famous Broadway and Hollywood personalities.  In one letter, Duncan wrote, "Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you – to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish."


One of her more long standing lovers/friends was Mary Dempsey/Mary D'Este or Desti.  Aleister Crowley went on to have an affair with Mary Dempsey.  Desti had come to Paris in 1901 where she soon met Duncan; the two became inseparable friends. Desti joined Crowley's occult order, helping him to write his magnum opus Magick: Book 4 under her magical name of 'Soror Virakam'.  This means both of them were involved in Crowley’s version of Sex Magick, which is not Sex Magick as it should be practised, but an orgy by any other name. 

In 1911, for example, the French fashion designer Paul Poiret rented a mansion called Pavillon du Butard in La Celle-Saint-Cloud and threw lavish parties, including one of the more famous grandes fêtes on 20 June 1912, La fête de Bacchus (re-creating the Bacchanalia). Isadora Duncan, wearing a Greek evening gown designed by Poiret, danced on tables among 300 guests and 900 bottles of champagne were consumed until the first light of day.  Bacchanalia and Dionysian orgies were one and the same thing, in other words, Duncan was involved in trying to recreate the cult of Bacchus and Dionysian frenzies.

Dionysos was the god of ecstasy in Greek mythology – spiritual experience.  He was thus the god who personified the mystic side of the Greek religion. If we wish to find out how the Greeks obtained spiritual experience, it is to him and the Mysteries that we need to turn.

Both in her professional and private lives, “Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality”. During her last United States tour, in 1922–23; Duncan waved a red scarf [alluding to her communist sympathies] and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, "This is red! So am I!"


Duncan bore two children both out of wedlock – the first, Deirdre Beatrice (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick Augustus (born May 1, 1910), by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer.

Her love of her children weaves its way through her entire biography, but a turning point came in her life – one she had a premonition about long before it happened.

Both children drowned while away from their mother in the care of their nanny in 1913 when their runaway car went into the Seine.

Isadora’s career and life turned on this event.  She makes it very clear that she never got over their deaths.  And from that moment she was almost incapable of dancing.  Following the accident, and almost paralysed with grief, she spent several months trying to get over their deaths in Corfu with her brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse.

In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger – the sculptor Romano Romanelli – to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. But as if to compound the tragedy, she did become pregnant and gave birth on August 13, 1914 to a son who died shortly after birth.

In 1921, after the close of the Russian Revolution, Duncan moved to Moscow where she met the acclaimed poet Sergei Esenin, who was 18 years her junior. On 2 May 1922 they married and Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. However, in May 1923 he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. Two years later, on 28 December 1925 Yesenin was found dead in his room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg in an apparent suicide.


From ages six to ten Duncan attended school but, then dropped out. Duncan began her dancing career at a very early age by giving lessons in her home to other neighborhood children, and this continued through her teenage years.  A desire to travel brought her to Chicago where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly's company. This took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance was rejected by audiences and critics alike.  Feeling unhappy and unappreciated in America, Duncan moved to London in 1898. There she performed in the drawing rooms of the wealthy. The earnings from these engagements enabled her to rent a studio where she developed her style.


From London she travelled to Paris.  In 1902, Loie Fuller invited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe.  She spent most of the rest of her life touring Europe and the Americas in this fashion.

In 1914, Duncan moved to the United States and transferred the school she had founded there. A townhouse on Gramercy Park was provided for its use, and its studio was nearby.  Otto Kahn, the head of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. gave Duncan use of the very modern Century Theatre at West 60th Street and Central Park West for her performances and productions.

Her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government's failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to move back to the West

By the end of her life Duncan's performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts. She spent her final years moving between Paris and the Mediterranean, running up debts at hotels. She spent short periods in apartments rented on her behalf by a decreasing number of friends and supporters, many of whom attempted to assist her in writing an autobiography.


On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a ‘French-Italian mechanic’. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked her to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but she would only agree to wear the scarf.

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the scarf almost immediately after the car left. Desti brought Duncan to the hospital, where she was declared dead.  As The New York Times noted in its obituary:

 "Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement."

Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her children in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The headstone of her grave contains the inscription École du Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris ("Ballet School of the Opera of Paris").



  • Mary Desti wrote a memoir of her experiences with Duncan that includes some autobiographical material - The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan 1921-1927 (1929).
  • Isadora, an Intimate Portrait - Sewell Stokes, describes Duncan in the last years of her life
  • Duncan's autobiography My Life was published in 1927


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