Legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894– 1991) transformed the art of dance: A true pioneer in the development of modern dance in the U.S., Graham created her own technique, founded a company that achieved international acclaim and gave the world choreographic masterworks, often collaborating with artists from different media.

Her sharp, angular movement style broke with not only the conventions of classical ballet, but also the styles of earlier modern dance innovators. She created 181 works over a 70-year span and became one of the most celebrated figures in American modern dance. She was honored with the 1976 Medal of Freedom from President Ford and the 1985 National Medal of Arts from President Reagan. In addition, Graham trained many dance greats, including Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor  and Twyla Tharp, and taught actors Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck and Tony Randall how to use the body as an expressive instrument.

After seeing Ruth St. Denis perform in 1911, Graham discovered dance relatively late in life, starting studies at age 22. Initially she trained at Denishawn, the famed school run by St. Denis and her partner Ted Shawn. In 1925, she took a teaching position at Eastman School of Music in New York. She used this opportunity to develop her own style and experiment with choreography, forming her first dance company, Martha Graham and Dance Group, with her Eastman students in 1926.

Graham’s early teaching was based on breathing and the bodily changes that occur as a dancer inhales and exhales. Capitalizing on this, Graham explored the idea that movement originates in the tension of a contracted muscle and continues in the flow of energy release as the muscle is relaxed. She emphasized the effort behind the movement in a more rugged way than her predecessors St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. After leaving Eastman a year later, Graham began working with Louis Horst, a composer from Denishawn. Horst introduced her to the work of German dance master Mary Wigman and to modern and cubist art. Horst also taught her about musical form and encouraged her to work with contemporary composers. From these influences, her revolutionary movement style began to emerge, based on angularity and dramatic falls that focused on spiritual themes and explored the characters’ inner emotions and desires.

Graham’s works drew from sources such as American frontier life, the religious ceremonies of Native Americans and Greek mythology. Inspired by cubism, Graham created Lamentation (1930), a solo in which she wore a tube of fabric that stretched to create a moving sculpture expressing struggle, confinement and grief. Another of her iconic dances, Primitive Mysteries (1931), is based on the rituals of Christianized Native Americans in the American Southwest. In this dance, Graham shifted her choreographic focus from the solo figure to the corps. This was Graham’s first critical success, garnering attention from critics, artists and audiences worldwide.

After the Depression, she made dances that reflected the shaping of American culture, returning again and again to the triumphs and struggles of both great and ordinary women. Many of the roles she created portray great historical and mythological women—Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Joan of Arc and Emily Dickinson. Graham performed the lead roles in most of her ballets, until severe arthritis forced her to retire from the stage in 1971. Nevertheless, she continued to think of herself as a dancer and never a choreographer.

As one of the first creators in modern dance to collaborate extensively with other modern artists, Graham worked with Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland. It was Frontier (1935) that inaugurated her decades-long collaboration with Noguchi, a sculptor known for his use of natural materials. He went on to design more than 20 sets for Graham, including one for Appalachian Spring, which stands to this day as one of her greatest masterpieces. In 1944, she sent written scripts to Copland, describing the narrative. He responded by sending sections of sheet music. Graham wanted a truly American theme, settling on a depiction of a Quaker newlywed couple building their first home. Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is perhaps the most memorable musical section of the piece.

Graham collaborated with many other artists including actor/director John Houseman, fashion designers Halston, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein and renowned composers Samuel Barber, William Schuman and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Today, Graham technique has become known for its powerful pelvic contractions and demanding floor work. Training in the technique has been structured as a set of exercises that become more difficult as the dancers’ skills and strength increase, resulting in bodies with strong core muscles ready to handle the demanding choreography.

The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in New York is home to the Martha Graham Dance Company, headed by Graham’s former students, artistic co-directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin and the Martha Graham School, the oldest school of modern dance in the world. There, dancers train in the Graham technique or at a professional training program, which prepares students for the Martha Graham Ensemble, an educational touring company.

Last August, an appellate court upheld a 2002 ruling that awarded the Center the rights to 45 Graham works, effectively ending the legal battle between the Center and Graham’s heir, Ron Protas. The Martha Graham Dance Company continues to perform the Graham masterworks nationally and internationally.  DT


Maureen Janson is a dancer, educator, choreographer and freelance writer in Madison, WI.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox