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Martha Graham: A Modern Dance Visionary

Updated on March 2, 2014

Martha Graham



Often called the "Picasso of Dance," Martha Graham paved a new path for modern dance. She began as a dancer, then went on to make her mark on the industry as a choreographer and company director. She danced well into her 60s, was the recipient of several awards and her company still performs her works today. Graham's contributions pushed modern dance to new boundaries and her methods and ideas still play a significant role in present day modern dance.


Early Years

Martha Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1894 to the wealthy Graham family. Martha's father was a doctor of nervous disorders. He founded his practice on the idea that the body is able to express its inner senses, a concept that his daughter would later build her her dance methods upon.

In 1910 the family relocated to Santa Barbara, California to improve the health of Graham's younger sister. It was there during her teenage years she saw a performance by Ruth St. Denis at the Mason Opera House in Los Angelos. She was so moved by the performance that she decided it was her destiny to become a dancer. When her parents discovered her aspirations, they would not of such a decision. It went again their Presbyterian values

After her father's death in 1914, Martha Graham felt she was able to pursue her dreams and thus enrolled in the arts college Cumnock School. Upon her graduation from the junior college, Martha enrolled in the Denishawn School of Dance owned by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. While studying with Denishawn, Graham was privileged to work with such artists as Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman. When Ted Shawn created the ballet Xochitl based upon a Mexican legend specifically for Graham, others in the industry began to seek her out.

For a few years after Graham left Denishawn she took a position with the Greenwich Village Follies as a dancer. This type of dance was not Martha's taste, so she left to pursue other avenues of the industry. She began teaching in 1925 for the Eastman School of Music and Theater in New York. It was at this time she established the Martha Graham Dance Company and began to develop the style that would become known as the Graham Method.


Groundbreaking Methods


Up until this point, choreographers let music inspire their movement. Isadora Duncan, the first to be recognized as a modern dancer, allowed the music to flow into her and assist her in creating movement. She used scarves and went back to a more primitive form of dancing by skipping and leaping as the music moved her. There was a certain joy to her movement as it was free and lively.

Graham turned Duncan's method of using music as a basis for movement upside down and instead turned to the world around her. Rather than music, she turned to historical events, mythology, social issues, poems, paintings, the Bible, etc for inspiration. Graham also began to include psychology in her choreography.

Once she had found what she called her 'stirring,' she began to create movement to bring that story to life. She would then find a piece of music to accompany her work or would have her longtime collaborator Louis Horst create a piece for her.

Style of Movement

Graham moved away from the traditional movement of ballet as she felt it was not expressive enough. She experiment with what she called 'contract and release.' When she began using this method in her company's performances, critics called it ugly. Now dancers come from everywhere to learn this method of modern dance.

In her first works, Graham kept everything very simple. She used a bare stage and minimal costuming to allow the dramatic movement to speak for itself. Unlike traditional ballet, Graham expanded the dance space to include the floor. Later she would add props into her works that would become a part of the story.

To truly bring her vision to life, Graham used very angular, sharp and jarring movements and theatrical expressions which were a distinct deviation from the traditional ballet. Her students performed her methods and broke barriers with Graham's work. She was the first to have African American and Asian dancers in her company. Graham considered finding and expressing emotion her goal and anyone who wished to learn her method was welcome.


Appalachian Spring


  • Created 181 dance compilations
  • Continued to dance into her 60s
  • Continued to choreograph until her death in 1991
  • Founder of the Martha Graham Dance Company, the first American dance company
  • Founder of the Dance Repertory Theater in New York
  • Influenced Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor
  • Taught Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov
  • Taught Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and Joanne Woodward


  • Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976
  • Inducted into the National Museum of Dance
  • Named "Dancer of the Century" by Time magazine
  • Named a female "Icon of the Century" by People magazine
  • Awarded the Local One Centennial Award by her peers given only every 100 years
  • Performed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House
  • First dancer to act as a cultural ambassador abroad

Martha Graham Company and School

To this day the Martha Graham company is still performing and keeping Martha Graham's spirit alive. They honor her through her original works, but are continuing to push the boundaries as their founder did by using her methods as a basis for inspiration. They continue to tour the United States presenting the works of Graham at many different venues.

Besides being the oldest dance company in American, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance is the longest continuously running school of dance in the country and is continuing to educate young dancers. The school is a charter of the National Association of Schools of Dance and is the only school that exclusively teaches the Graham techniques and methods. They also offer different levels of graduation as well as various certificates to those who wish to learn Graham's methods.


Paving the Way for Future Generations

Martha Graham took the world of dance by storm with her emotionally charged, boundary pushing works. She was the first to use her world as inspiration and dance to emote something other than a story. This is something dancers are now taught to do in their works. To look beyond what they see, dig deep for emotion and be inspired by the world around them. Martha Graham opened the door for not only modern dance, but all dance. She inspired and shook her generation to its core and her works remain timeless to this day. Her company still produces her original work to preserve her memory and wonderful creativity and many other draw upon her work and methods for inspiration.


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