Teachers & Role Models

Martha Graham: American Modern Dance Pioneer

Martha Graham in Deaths and Entrances (1943). Photo by Chris Alexander, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

One of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Martha Graham (1894–1991) helped lead the American modern dance revolution, breaking from the traditions of classical ballet as well as the romantic style of earlier modern dance pioneers. The Pennsylvania native came to dance relatively late: At 22 she began studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and joined the Denishawn dancers soon after. Graham formed her own performance troupe in 1926, and in order to train dancers for her work, she developed a codified technique. Her movement vocabulary stemmed from breathing: the changes in one's body from the actions of exhale (contraction) and inhale (release). Over time, she developed a series of complex floor-work exercises (also including falls and spirals) that evolved into what we know as Graham technique.


Fun Facts:

  • To help fund her burgeoning company, Graham taught a movement for actors class in Greenwich Village. Students included Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Orson Welles.
  • Invited by Eleanor Roosevelt, Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House—for President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.
  • Graham received a Dance Magazine Award in 1956 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976.
  • Erick Hawkins was the first male dancer in Graham's company. They were married for two years.

Vocabulary

  • CONTRACTION: The percussive action of exhale; it's a curved lower spine and rounded pelvis—initiated from the pelvis.
  • RELEASE: The action of inhale. Initiated with the pelvis, it's an extended lower back and elongated spine.
  • INNER LANDSCAPE: "The soul of man." It was Graham's fundamental quest to express the human psyche.

The Work:

Capturing human emotion, desire and suffering, Graham's dramatic and often politically charged works draw inspiration from American life, ritual and Greek mythology. She often starred in her pieces and didn't retire from the stage until well into her 70s. Notable works include:

  • Lamentation (1930): Perhaps Graham's most famous work, the grieving performer is constrained by a tube of fabric.
  • Chronicle (1936): Graham choreographed this work after rejecting Nazi Germany's invitation to perform at the Berlin Olympics. It expresses the plight of the suffering during the Great Depression and wartime devastation.
  • Appalachian Spring (1944): Created in collaboration with composer Aaron Copland, this American masterpiece illustrates a young pioneer couple on their wedding day.
  • Night Journey (1947): It's the story of Oedipus from Jocasta's perspective, with a set by Isamu Noguchi and music by William Schuman.
  • Maple Leaf Rag (1990): A departure from Graham's usual dramatic work, this humorous piece is set to the music of Scott Joplin.

The Legacy Lives On:

*Led by artistic director Janet Eilber, Martha Graham Dance Company continues to tour internationally. It performs Graham's masterpieces as well as works by contemporary choreographers like Doug Varone, Lar Lubovitch and Richard Move, who is best known for his critically acclaimed impersonations of Graham.

*The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance is now located in the historic Westbeth studios of Manhattan's West Village. Virginie Mécène directs the school and its performance troupe Graham II.

*Former members of MGDC include Jacqulyn Buglisi, Merce Cunningham, Pearl Lang, Elisa Monte, Pascal Rioult, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor and Glen Tetley.

How-To

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Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

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How-To
Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

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By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

Next Page
How-To
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

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If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

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Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

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