Martha Graham

The Mother of Modern Dance

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Who was Martha Graham?

Martha Graham was an American modern dancer who established her own dance company in New York City and developed an original, non-traditional technique that spoke to more prohibited forms of movement and emotional expression. She continued dancing until her 70s and choreographed until her death in 1991, leaving the dance world forever changed.

Leaping into the World and Early Influences

Martha Graham was born in a suburb of Allegheny (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania on May 11, 1894. She was the oldest of two sisters, Mary and Georgia but a younger brother died of Scarlet fever before his second birthday. As a child, Martha was influenced by her father George Graham, a doctor who used physical movement to cure nervous disorders. Dr. Graham believed that the body could express its inner senses, and that idea fascinated his daughter. Her father would play the piano and songs for his children and Graham's nurse as a child, Elizabeth Pendergass, had a love for theater. She would often help the children stage plays while she was watching them. In 1908, the Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California because Mary suffered from chronic asthma and couldn't be around the unhealthy air. Martha went to Santa Baraba high school, but California was also the home of the Denishawn company, which would later become the school of her dreams.


At Santa Barbara High School, Graham was the school's literary magazine editor, named Olive and Gold as well as being a seam stress and playing baskstball on her school's team. In the year 1911, Martha was with her parents and saw a poster advertising a dance show by Ruth St. Denis on April 24th-29th in Los Angeles. She begged her parents to go and her father allowed it. He bought her a new outfit for the show as well. Martha saw Ruth St. Denis, leader of the Denishawn School, perform and decided she wanted to learn and study dance, but being sa strong Presbyterian, her father insisted that she obtain a "real" education by going to a four year university. However still in high school she stopped playing basketball and put theather it its place. In the fall, she studied theater and dance at the University of Cumnoch, a school of Expression. She was only allowed to go because her friend Marguerite Andrus was also going. Graham's father died after her first year in college, and funds were small, but her mother made sure that Martha and her sisters got the best education possible. She graduated from college in 1916 to begin dancing with the Denishawn School in Los Angeles that same year.

Dancing into the Spotlight

Martha Graham's inspiration in becoming a dancer was viewing the Ruth St. Denis performance she saw in highschool. Five years after seeing St. Denis perform, Graham decided to apply to study at the Denishawn School of Dance. She hoped she would learn from her inspiration directly. Martha had to audition for St. Denis by herself, and but she was not hugely impressed and passed the decision on to the other half of her team, her husband Ted Shawn. Graham was let in to the school and began her training quickly after. She impressed Shawn and Denis, by mastering tough exercises, steps, and gestures. During her time at the school, Martha danced late at night in the studios. As time went on and it was the end of her first year at Denishawn, Graham was teaching movement classes under the supervision of Ruth. She then got the job of becoming the dance teacher to three and four year olds! Graham made her debut in the Denishawn School when one day Ted Shawn was casting roles for his piece called Serenata Morisca and could not make up his mind on a soloist for the role but none of the dancers who practiced the choreography was right for the job according to Shawn. He expressed that he thought Martha would be perfect, if only she knew the steps.

Sissoning into Success

When Martha heard that Ted thought she would be perfect for the role, she announced that she did know the moves and performed the piece for Shawn. She had mastered the dance just by watching! After this, Shawn made her one of the leading dancers, and performed Serenata Morisca multiple times. Martha was even doing a duet with Shawn. By 1921 she was touring the country regularly with Denishawn, which at the time was America's most famous dance company. A normal performance had about 21 dances and the dancers performed four shows on the weekend and three shows during the week. Marth Graham had some solos throughout. Although Martha's time at Denishawn was special, this was not Graham's introduction into the dance world. In 1923, Graham was offered a job at the Greenwich Follies, and left Denishawn to dance in New York City.

Influencing and Teaching

Martha Graham's influence on 20th Century dance has been compared to Pablo Picasso`s influence on art, Igor Stravinsky's on music, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s on architecture. She has taught many famous actors, actresses, and singers such as Madonna and Gregory Peck! As a teacher, Graham trained and inspired generations of amazing dancers and choreographers that are now very successful. Some of these people included Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and countless other performers, actors, and dancers. Everyone from Woody Allen to Bette Davis think of her as a major influence. She was even the first choreographer to employ both Asian and African-American dancers! Because of Martha Graham, many dancers became who they are and the dance world would be changed and better.

End of Career

Throughout her career, Martha choreographed and performed over 180 dances! Some of them include Revolt (1927), Immigrant: Steerage, Strike (1928), Chronicle (1936), and tons more. Martha Graham died on April 1, 1991 in New York City, New York. Lots have people must have wished it was just a fools joke, but at 96 died of cardiac arrest after being treated for two months for pneumonia. She danced until her mid-70's but choreographed until her death. Graham's life was based on dancing. “I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer,” she said. “It’s permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.” Dancers are still applying and dreaming to dance at the Martha Graham School, as some are performing with choreography inspired by her. Martha Graham left the whole dance world forever changed for the better, and her style of dance will still live on and on as well as taking breath away. Martha Graham's inspiring story and dances will leave the dance world forever changed for the better.
Martha Graham Dance Company in "Echo"| Jacob's Pillow Pillow Dance Festival 2015
Martha Graham - Lamentation

Words to Know

solos- a dance or part of a routine which is performed by only one person

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis- owners of the Denishawn Company, and very successful choreographers

Denishawn- the Denishawn School is school of dancing and related arts. It was founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, California and it is the first dance academy in the United States to produce a professional dance company as well as perfecting many dancer's


"Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of ther passion."

"Dance is the language of the soul of the body."

"People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life."

"Dancers are the messengers of the gods."

"The body says what words cannot."

"You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something is lost."

"I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of man- the landscape of his soul. I can hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human can be."