Visions and Gifts: Martha Graham, Memory and Practice

Kim Jones* and Fen Kennedy**

Abstract

Dance techniques are physical and ideological systems, teaching us how to think about our bodies and how to move our bodies through the world. Codified modern techniques are testaments to the values of their creators and the dancers who helped create their vision—values which are imbued through physical and communal practice. In this conversational article, Kim Jones and Fen Kennedy explore this philosophy of technique as a space of radical possibility. We argue that the most appropriate role for codified techniques, professionally and communally, is as an entry point into a vision for the shared future of dance and humanity. Taking Martha Graham’s technique as our basis, we explore how our personal and professional relationships with classes and repertoire have shaped the artistry, advocacy and activism we share in our work today. For Kennedy, Graham’s public anti-fascism is a source of strength in a moment where neo-nazi groups and transgender hatred go hand in hand. For Jones, the vulnerability and breath in Graham’s technique helped her find strength, a voice, a place of identity in the world and a mind/body connection as a child of an immigrant mother in the U.S. Both authors have also grappled with the place of codified modern techniques within University training systems that often privilege whiteness and have sought ways to push back on this through their work. Jones, for example, is currently bringing international recognition to twentieth-century Korean modernist virtuoso Choi Seung Hee. As we train the artists of the future, we move towards a theory of technique as a gift we can give to our own and other bodies, one that must be shaped to the recipient, that might be admired but taken up selectively and that can be turned into an instrument for future change.

Keywords: dance practice, modern dance, Graham technique, dance history, dancing memories, educators, dance practitioners

Dance techniques are ideological systems, teaching us not just to move in studios and on stages but sharing values about how we carry ourselves in the world and with others. As we shape today’s dance programs, what values are we imparting to the dancers in our classrooms? What techniques can feed not just their physical curiosity and skill but also their human relationships to creativity, care and community wellbeing? What is the place of existing techniques in this process, and how might they need to be adapted or re-framed to meet the changing nature of contemporary higher education?

This article is written by Kim Jones and Fen Kennedy. We are dancers and historians, teachers in American higher education and devotees of Graham technique. We both stand at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, and we are both educators who believe in teaching for a better world. In this article, we explore the history of Martha Graham and our own practice of Graham technique, thinking through what that has taught us about ourselves and the world we live in and what it might do for our students now.

The historical picture of Martha Graham has become clouded by idolatry, mythmaking, iconoclasm and stereotype, and this, in turn, has shaped how Graham’s legacy is understood and shared in higher education settings. Graham technique was a common element of higher education programs during the mid-twentieth-century shift out of Physical education and remained popular until the 1990s—it is still often taught but frequently as part of a more general technique curriculum. Rather than simply acting as recipients and transmitters of that history, we have shaped this article into a series of dialogues: a dialogue between ourselves, between the archive and our experiences, between our knowledge and our students’ needs. The subtitles of each section are direct quotes from an interview between us that inspired our writing. Historical research speaks to memory, and memory adjusts to practice. We believe that by keeping the conversation open, we can make space for self-reflective practices that continue to serve us as dancers and human beings.

Martha Graham, Los Angeles, 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As a choreographer approaching the 100th anniversary of her first solo choreographic concert, Martha Graham’s place in Dance History is canonical, and complicated. Her importance to the development of American modern dance and her choreographic legacy are well-known, but since the Dance Studies turn in the 1980s, more and more questions have been raised about her politics and her place in the curriculum. In a life as well-documented as Graham’s, archival evidence is available to support a wide variety of political ideas. Scholars have argued for, and used history to illustrate, pictures of Graham as a passionate activist and a careful politician, as an inclusive inspiration and a problematic white savior, as a feminist and anti-feminist, and so on and so forth. The anecdotes that are held onto and repeated tend to be those that show the best of Graham’s actions—her refusal to stay in the Algonquin hotel when they denied a room to Black singer Marian Anderson (Graham 155). Her announcement that she would not come to Nazi Germany to perform for the Olympics in 1936.[1]

The difficulty of writing about Graham’s politics, or beliefs, in any general sense becomes especially apparent in discussing her relationship to cultural identity. Graham’s career was long, her work varied and her political positioning frequently left open to interpretation. She edited her work freely in response to her changing ideas and an evolving political climate. Her work, for example, was profoundly influenced by her exposure to Native American cultures (she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1932 to study Native American dances), but her choreographic strategies shifted throughout her career: including named Native American figures, staging un-named Native American Archetypes and abstracting from Native American movement, art and belief.[2] Graham’s own writing on this subject, and notes on her choreography, show an ongoing conflict between her deep desire to represent well and her acknowledgement that doing so was impossible for a cultural outsider (Shea Murphy 165). Over her lifetime, Graham’s choices about how best to resolve this conflict changed—she left some pieces un-made, she edited others, and she changed how she acknowledged Native American influences on her work. Students can learn a lot from studying her shifts, thinking about why she made one choice in one historical moment before changing her approach in another and applying what they have learned to their own understanding of culture and appropriation.

Critical responses to Graham are also often more interesting for their own shifting and conflicting attitudes than what they tell us about Graham herself. In 1991, Maureen Needham Costonis lauded Graham’s American Document (1938) as a “Minstrel show in modern dance dress” and praised her decision to avoid “degrading racial stereotypes” by having white women dance the roles of emancipated Black slaves (306). In 2006, Susan Manning extensively discussed the same piece as an example of “metaphorical minstrelsy”—symptomatic of a form of racism that pervaded modern dance and critical responses to it (Manning 126). These critical attitudes develop as a response to new archival data but also as a result of personal politics and an increasing awareness of what constitutes ethical practice.

Rather than attempt to resolve these conversations neatly, we acknowledge the potential in an ongoing conversation that allows political and ethical knowledge to develop. Graham’s archival history, her changing choices and the ways that scholars and activists have responded to those choices are all part of the picture of how we engage with her technique and choreography. We cannot be afraid to criticize—to acknowledge that Graham’s work is imperfect and some of her choices were, and are, harmful. We also can acknowledge how her work and choices have the potential to be a powerful resource for good. We can look at how people change over time, and why. From this starting point we look at gender, political identity, choreography and wellbeing, through Graham, through ourselves and through our students.

“The power not to be afraid of my own existence”

At twenty-two years old, Martha Graham—whose performance skills are internationally revered, even today—was considered by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, her company directors, to be “good enough to be a teacher, but not a dancer” (Graham 66). Graham was not blonde or curly-haired, she did not fit the company’s ideal of beauty, and they thought she would never perform.[3] To my students, this story is ridiculous, but it also gives them hope. How many students today, of every gender, feel judged by an aesthetic standard that has nothing to do with how they dance in a classroom or perform on stage?

Fen: Having been told at 16 that I was too short for ballet school, Graham repertoire was my first encounter with a technique with roles that fit my body, and that fit my friends’ bodies. Of course, I wanted to dance everything, but “Girl in Yellow” from Diversion of Angels, who leaps and bounds across the stage and is flung, spinning through the air, still feels like a recognition of who I am, and how I move through the world.

Kim: Being a Korean American dance student in the late 1980s, I did not find any instructors who looked like me in my training. I trained with three exceptional, passionate African American teachers in High School for three years: Shirley Rushing, Carolyn Devore and Dawn Dacosta. They provided excellent dance rigor of varied genres of dance and raised up each and every dance student in our NYC public school dance program. Around 1991, I went to see the Ailey Company, and I was in awe and inspired by watching two specific women, Filipino artist Elizabeth Roxas and Korean-American dancer Dana Hash. Watching them changed the course of my life.

Graham’s technique was primarily made on her own body—a cis woman’s body—and her repertoire often deals with the nature of being a woman. But for those who dance and perform it, the work and technique celebrate gender rather than being gendered. Abdiel Jacobson, a gender fluid dancer, explains that while some of the character roles they played demanded heteronormative ideals of masculinity from them, those roles came from a technique that allowed them to embrace femininity and that “had no boundaries” of gender expression (White-McGuire 56). Graham’s historical image has become increasingly associated with stereotyped, performative femininity and yet, in fact, holds a lot of space for gender rebellion and inclusive teaching.

Fen Kennedy. Photo: Emilia Stuart

Another space that Graham’s life might give us, if we let it, is in how we treat dancers who experience disability, especially mental health issues. Agnes de Mille, one of Graham’s frankest biographers, documents Graham’s lifelong journey with physical and mental anguish. Her menstrual cycle frequently left her “prostrated with pain,” and by her fifties, arthritis was starting to have a substantial impact on her career. By 1958, Graham could no longer freely open or close her hands and could barely hold a pen. In the first moments of Clytemnestra, a ballet she made and starred in that year, Graham thrust out her hands to the audience in a gesture of acknowledgment and defiance (338).

For some time, Martha Graham became withdrawn, Agnes DeMille notes. “She shut herself up in her apartment, refusing to go near the school.” Photo: Agnes DeMille. Web/Wikimedia Commons/Pubic domain

As early as the 1930s, DeMille notes that Graham would fall into “depressions,” sometimes exacerbated by alcohol (146). While DeMille tends to treat these episodes as a temperamental form of artistic block and catharsis, with the improved mental health literacy of more recent generations, the following paragraph reads as the description of an acute mental health crisis: “She could no longer dance. For some time, she became withdrawn. She shut herself up in her apartment, refusing to go near the school. She drank, or people believed she drank. When occasionally she went to rehearsals, she would sit with her eyes rolled back to the whites, not speaking or moving . . . some days she didn’t even bother to dress herself decently” (375). For at least a year, DeMille notes, Graham openly expressed to friends a wish to die (302).

Graham’s attitude to her own body and mind was unforgiving—pushing herself through pain and despair until she collapsed. From a distance, however, the idea that Martha Graham was a woman who experienced disability and profound mental illness is, perhaps, a pathway towards empathy and community. To live her life and do her work, Graham needed to be supported, she needed to be cared for, and she needed to withdraw, frequently, from the studio and from her own practice—grace that our students today are often reluctant to offer themselves. Yung Yung Tsuai remembers meeting Graham in the late 1960s while Graham was in Taiwan on a rehabilitative visit. She recalls that between 1970 and 1972 Graham’s sister Georgia—known as Geordie—came to New York and took care of Graham while she was in and out of the hospital for issues with alcoholism.

Graham’s health was an “open secret” within the company; she did not always care for herself as well as she could have, and there were not always good avenues for her to access healing. Betty Ford, a longtime friend and student of Graham’s also admitted during this period to struggles with addiction, and the two found solidarity and support in each other. Today, better avenues can exist for dancers to address injury and mental illness, and we hope that they can use them and take the journey they take to recovery, without shame. When Gerald Ford, Betty’s husband, presented Graham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 DeMille writes: “. . . it was not for a single act of valor or a single dance. It was for the days and hours and years of walking, stretching, rolling, thinking, praying, and dropping to rest. And for being steadfast” (266). Perhaps we can also encourage our students to embrace the days and hours and years when all they can do is walk and stretch and pray.

You Can’t Do Graham and Be Polite (But You Can Learn to Move Differently)

Kim: At the Graham school, I wasn’t asked to think of the work for a political lens, I was asked to engage the work from a physical practice. And within the physical practice, I discovered my identity. At 20, I was able to have a sense of understanding of my body as it was changing and an understanding of how it lived in the space where I lived: in New York City, amongst other New Yorkers—national and international.

Graham’s political positioning, especially in her early years, is a matter of some debate. In New York in the 1930s, many of her peers were engaged in communist politics and created dances to further those ideals. While some critics dismissed Graham for her privilege or her depiction of individual rather than group rebellion, others tried hard to adopt her into the revolutionary movement. Edna Ocko, in particular, critiqued Graham harshly, while also writing a narrative of her emerging social consciousness, using dances like Frenetic Rhythms (1933) and Celebration (1934) as evidence for Graham’s participation in a contemporary, socially oriented ideology (Graff 109). Mark Franko notes that while many leftist dancers strove for accessible interpretations of their work, Graham’s abstraction was also seen as politically valuable to an anti-fascist cause (15). Graham own words on the subject were circumspect, allowing her to retain favor as the U.S. government clamped down harder and harder on outspoken communist artists.

Today, the U.S. is a politically polarized landscape, with different states, cities, schools and so on making radically different decisions on human rights and how certain groups of people can be treated or how they can live. Students in Florida can no longer be taught many elements of history, and librarians across the country face sustained book-banning campaigns. Teachers in Alabama are required to put children’s lives in danger by outing them if they suspect them to be gender non-conforming. California named itself a sanctuary state for immigrants in defiant opposition to federal immigration laws. Students do not necessarily know about all of these things, but cumulatively, they are aware of many of them—they see political movements devastate the lives of their families and friends. While students may not have formed a coherent political identity, their lives have never been separated from politics; they have always seen how politics affects the world around them. The need for young people to find a place within a political landscape may feel increasingly urgent, but it is important to remember that it is not new.

Kim: As a child growing up in New York, I was around lots of intergenerational politics. Most of our parents were veterans of the Vietnam War, and we were dealing with sadness and resistance to the war. I remember hearing my neighbor wondering about his comrades who were missing in action. I grew up on a mostly orthodox Jewish city block in a very mixed neighborhood—each block was a different community. Hip hop was being born literally in some of the streets where I was living.

Fen: Having a feeling about right and wrong doesn’t mean you get out there and you’re an activist doing work to help the thing that’s right, necessarily. There are different stages: you’re existing in this climate, you’re actively seeking knowledge within it, you’re engaging with it, you’re forming your viewpoint, and then maybe you become active in the pursuit of your viewpoint. But that’s a growing process that students need help and structure with. 

Just as it is ever-present in our students’ lives, politics is always already enmeshed in the day-to-day life of the classroom. This does not mean that Graham technique should be taught as part of a political project, but students can, and often will, use the discovery of their bodies, and their engagement with Graham’s work, as a space for identity-making. This might happen through the technique itself: the opposition created in the pull of the spiral and in the “wide stride” might help them embody the pull between different value systems. The suspended shift of a tilt, the precarity of its depth, can help their vestibular systems adjust to the physical sensations of fear and show them how strong they can be in risky places.

Kim Jones in the studio. Photo: Jeff Cravotta

More so than the technique, however, Graham’s choreography teaches dancers to discover facets of themselves through a given role, asking them to try on different selves to see how they fit and feel. To achieve the spatial and rhythmic counterpoint of Graham’s work, dancers must cultivate a sense of community feel that for some translates as a direct metaphor for citizenship (Daye 134).

Fen: My first exposure to Graham was in dance history classes, so I actually never learned the technique separately from its artistic and political context. When I restaged Diversion of Angels with Susan Sentler for the Trinity Laban conservatoire, I talked about the archetypes of womanhood, and I asked: When Graham made the work, what were people thinking about women at the time? What did that mean for women’s politics? What did that look like in your own countries? I wasn’t necessarily teaching politics, but if you get people to think about the themes and Graham’s work and how they relate to them, they start tapping into an awareness that of how that’s connected to their own life. How it’s connected to the world now.

Kim: We danced Panorama in 1994, in Spoleto, Italy. More than 30 students joined the first company on that tour. I got to watch Night Journey performed in a Roman ruin, and then we learned about the Roman ruin, and the massacres that happened in there, and thought about the politics. We were in blood-red dresses. And I’m thinking, right, that my mother was just institutionalized a few months earlier, and the family went through incredible pain and suffering. We danced at nine o’clock at night because it was too hot to dance earlier in the evening. I remember touching the stones of the amphitheater, and I remember looking at the moon and breathing deeply working on being present for myself and the environment. I honored the people that died in those Roman ruins, I honored the loss of part of my mother. And I also remember saying to myself, this dance is for me, now I’m moving with the masses. I’m building my strength, as a human, as a woman, as an artist, as a child of someone suffering. There was a beginning of my political momentum, this self-identity, but it was really through the movement.

In addition to identity development, Graham technique is enormously cathartic. The cyclical energy of contraction and release of the body, the structured use of the breath and even the Graham contraction itself as analogous to a sob or shout of joy mean that approaching the technique also means approaching the physicalization of strong emotions. This is also something that many of our students desperately need: time and tools to process the grief and pain, the anger, which today’s political polarizations and the dehumanization many of them face has worked into their bodies.

Kim: Graham gave me the freedom to move, yes, unapologetically, and to push things out of the body.

Fen: During undergrad, I was living in a very dangerous situation. I was so used to holding back what I felt and holding back what I needed to say—I was very used to being very well-behaved and good. What helped me get out of those situations was learning that there was also a value to not being well-behaved and good, and Graham taught me that.

Sometimes All You Can Do Is Breathe

Kim: The Graham floorwork is usually 30 minutes of a 90-minute technique class. I find the initiation of moving from my pelvis upward allows my extremities to respond from my back. I found this technique to be a wonderful tool to strengthen my core and understand my center of balance. The technique training focuses on being conscious of how we use breath. It can be audible breath to help understand how the exhalation can deepen the contraction in the torso, for example. There is this deep breathing that gives me a positive release of tension in muscles or emotions. The flow of energy increases as the class progresses.

Fen: I’m thinking about the potential of Graham technique to express sadness or joy or to express anger in really genuine ways. When students say they want to make expressive works, they often rely on a shared language of movements—like running on the spot in slow motion—that can seem cliched. Instead of telling them not to use these movements, what if we offered more ways to help them find their own voice and emotions? Graham might tell them to go back to breathing through it and then look at what happened from there.

In addition to developing a political identity, students in higher education for dance are also encouraged to develop their artistic voices as choreographers. Many students get pre-vocational training in “competition” studios—studios that encourage dancers to participate in group and solo exhibitions at various tiers of expertise. The requirements of competition dance: to show emotion, to show “technique,” to show high-contrast dynamics and tight unison, shape students’ own choreographic development, especially if they themselves aspire to a studio career. Competition dances are short, rarely lasting more than three minutes, and the Instagram reels and TikTok videos that many of my students watch for inspiration are even more brief. They emphasize short-form, high-impact choreography, performed at high levels of physical and/or emotional intensity, and use these choreographic techniques to address subjects like racism, addition, abusive relationships or trauma.

This choreographic training, once placed in the University system, can often clash with professors’ expectations for students to produce longer-form, proscenium works, and to develop a unique choreographic voice. Students have to re-learn how to balance a stage, how to work with group, how to apply perspective, how to relate to music. They have to re-learn the depth and understanding they need to have for a subject before they can investigate it choreographically and put it on stage. This can, sometimes, feel like they are not being allowed to express themselves. Competition dances frequently feature named, virtuosic vocabulary steps, which students in turn feel pressure to include in their own works as indicators of both technique and feeling. Professors often note these movements as tropes but do not always manage to create a meaningful dialogue between conflicting aesthetics in their search for alternative movement languages.

Fen: I see the work my students want to make, and they often want to make drama, they want to make passion, they want to talk about their lives, and they want to talk about their insecurity. We are still in a moment of national trauma and grieving; and often in academic settings, there’s a push to abstraction that many of my students read as a push to sanitize how they feel.

Graham technique is intimately tied to decades of dance-making—the technique was crafted to suit Graham’s artistic vision and evolved as that vision developed. This process, spanning decades and supported by hundreds of dancers and collaborators, allowed Graham to express herself artistically. Beginning from breathing, she found her own voice and the things that she desperately needed to say—personally, politically and professionally. By the 1930s, Graham and her dancers had started to codify her choreographic patterns into codified exercises, a process that continued over Graham’s lifetime as her artistry developed. New exercises, for example, emerged when Erik Hawkins and other male dancers joined the company; the use of the spiral in choreography added a whole new dimension to use of the spine in the classroom.

This is not an argument for students to adopt Graham’s codified movements as their own, but we should realize that a choreographic voice takes many years to develop and needs structured support from mentors and peers. The opportunity to do self-directed embodied research, to see that research on other bodies and to work with invested collaborators is essential in the development of an artistic and personal opinion. If we gave students permission, time and support to find the techniques of their own bodies, what movements would they create, and what would they use those movements to say?

Conclusion

Fen: A lot of my students really want to support their friends, they want to get involved, they want to help the people they see struggling around them. But they’ve learned that if they don’t get the language right, they’ll be judged or punished. So, they hold back.

Kim: I’ve listened to student discussions about lack of diversity, equity and inclusion and experienced my own conversations go unheard. There seems to be more calls for meetings but little to no action of change by upper administrators.   

As our students develop their choreographic and political voices alongside each other, they learn, if they have not already, that some of those voices are more privileged in an academic system than others. As we, as marginalized instructors, seek to offer our students support and space, we must also acknowledge that we ourselves live through the daily experience of silencing and the oppression of our identities. Like our students, we use our bodies and Graham technique to embody non-linguistic kinds of strength and community. When we make the first contraction of the bounces, when we release into the diagonals, fall into pitches, spiral and plead, we do so in an imaginary community of artists and collaborators that stretches back across decades and around the world. By giving our students access to this codified technique, we also create space for them to be in this community with us. It is our ongoing goal to ensure that through our teaching, lives and activism, our community expands and offers belong to more kinds of identities and lives.

Fen: Graham was criticized in the 1930s for emphasizing the need for individual bravery rather than group effort. But I’m the only trans person in my department, I often don’t have a group around me, and Graham technique taught me to have a brave voice, even when I’m the only one saying anything.

Kim: There are consequences for speaking up and speaking out in academia as a Professor. I’ve watched people of color leave tenured and tenure-track positions, at various institutions, or leave academia entirely. All I could do in Graham’s technique was breathe through what you can’t change—for the sake of my mental health. You have to harness your center. You have to literally move in a different direction because the oppressive power is so strong.

We believe that Graham technique can be a political tool for embodying the future that we and our students want to create together. We want to recognize the human within the work and the changing shape of her choices as she learned. We want to recognize that dancers’ bodies exist in pain and trauma and offer space for acceptance and healing. We commit to expression, not as a superficial act of performance but as a deeply human need, and understand the urgency of finding one’s voice in a community of support. We want to return to breath and groundedness, to embrace precarity and the strength within it. We use Graham’s technique not as the only vehicle for this work but as a model for how others can examine their own movement histories and discover how they can access and celebrate these things for themselves.


Endnotes

[1] No American company went. Graham maintains that she said if any other company were invited, she would publish her own invitation to let the world know that Germany had had to take second best (Graham 151).

[2] For those wanting a more in-depth analysis of this subject, we recommend The People Have Never Stopped Dancing by Jacqueline Shea Murphy.

[3] Graham’s appearance was so ambiguous that audience members insisted at various times that she was Jewish, Chinese, Latine, and several other identities. While on tour with Dennishawn, she was almost thrown off a train by police who thought she was Romani (Graham 88).

Bibliography

Daye, Ann. “Keeping Alive the Wonder: Primitive Mysteries, New York 1931 to London 2009.” Dance Chronicle, vol. 31, no. 1, 2010, pp. 113–39.

De Mille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. Random House, 1991.

Franko, Mark. Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work. Oxford UP, 2012.

Graff, Ellen. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928–1942. Duke UP, 1997.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday, 1991.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance Negro Dance: Rage in Motion. U of Minnesota P, 2006.

Needham Costonis, Maureen. “Martha Graham’s American Document: A Minstrel Show in Modern Dance Dress.” American Music, vol. 9, no 3, 1991, pp. 297–310.

Shea Murphy, Jacqueline. The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories. U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Tsuai, Yung Yung. Personal interview. 31 Oct. 2023.

White McGuire, Blakely. The Martha Graham Dance Company: House of the Pelvic Truth. Bloomsburry, 2022. 


*Kim Jones is an Associate Professor of dance at UNC Charlotte, a régisseur for the Martha Graham Resource Center and founder and artistic director of Movement Migration. In July 2022, she joined the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute: Making Modernism: Literature, Dance, and Visual Culture in Chicago, 1893–1955. 

**Fen Kennedy, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Alabama. Their work can be read in Dance Chronicle, the Journal of Dance Education, and in the edited collections Picture a Professor and Politics as Public Art. In June 2022, they were a writer in residence at the National Humanities Center.

Copyright © 2024 Kim Jones and Fen Kennedy
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