Dance is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Tomb paintings in India dating from 8000 BCE show pictures of people dancing. Throughout history people have danced to celebrate happy events such as births, marriages, and victories as well as to commemorate deaths and defeats. But dance is an art that has not been easy to record, so we know very little of what ancient dancing was like or how the performances looked. And so, it seems that every generation must reinvent the art of dancing.
Fortunately for us, the twentieth century brought us new ways of recording visual arts and movement. At the same time, many artists were turning to dance as a way to express their feelings and ideas. Martha Graham is remembered as a woman who revolutionized the way dance was taught and performed in America. She was born in 1894, and lived through most of the twentieth century, dying in 1991. During her long life she transformed the art of dance.
Graham was born in Pennsylvania but moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was 14 years old. It was in California that she first saw professional dance performances and decided to study dance. She enrolled in the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles and soon became one of their star dancers. In 1923, she left the school and moved east where she started her own studio and school in New York City in 1926. The school which she started has been an important part of the modern dance world ever since its founding and it is now the oldest active dance school in America.
Most dance performances staged in New York before the twentieth century had been based on the European tradition of ballet dancing. Dancers wore gauzy tutus and ballet shoes that allowed them to dance “en pointe” and move about the stage as if they were floating. Graham’s approach was very different. She developed the concept of “contraction and release” as the major style of movement. Some fans of the more familiar European style of dance considered Graham’s work a betrayal of the traditional culture of ballet. Graham herself felt that she was expressing the spirt of her time. She wrote: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that the others are behind the times.”
Graham had strong feelings about social and political issues. In 1936, she refused to dance at the Olympics in Germany saying, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time” because of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Many of the dances she created were based on American traditions, or on ancient Greek drama. Through her work she celebrated democracy and freedom. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to perform in the White House, making her the first dancer to appear in a performance there. Years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with a Medal of Freedom in a further acknowledgement of her work.
During her long career, Graham created 181 dances. One of the most popular and influential was “Appalachian Spring” which was first staged in 1944 with music by Aaron Copeland. It was welcomed as a major achievement in American dance and music. As her work became more widely acclaimed, and filming techniques improved, Graham gave up he early objections to having her work photographed. A number of films of Graham’s dances have been preserved at the Library of Congress. In recent years, many have also been made available on YouTube.
Graham continued to create dances and to perform in them during the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. The records aren’t clear on when she gave her last performance, but in her unfinished memoir, she said that she last appeared on stage in 1970.
During the years after her retirement from the stage, Graham had a period of depression that lasted for almost two years. Her health declined and she spent some time in a hospital, but in 1972, she returned to her studio and to choreography. She created new dances and coached young dancers in performing them. Her death in 1991 led to an outpouring of honors to celebrate her contributions to the arts.
Several biographies of Martha Graham have been published, most recently, Neil Baldwin’s Martha Graham: When Dancing Became Modern (Knopf 2022). Baldwin’s bookhas been praised as the most complete account of Graham’s life and work. It is widely available in bookstores and public libraries.