Painting Martha Graham by Angela Yarber


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Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist  is the dancing revolutionary Martha Graham. So, as the contemporary and modern dancers on So You Think You Can Dance continue to amaze us this summer, let us remember from whence they came.

Martha Graham’s contribution to the world of dance cannot be overestimated. She is regaled as the Picasso of the dance world, revolutionizing it by introducing an entirely new quality of movement known as modern dance. Not only did Graham revolutionize the dance world, like Isadora Duncan before her, she also made great contributions to feminist spirituality. One of her most famous statements may well have been “wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.” Like most dancers who are so in tune with their bodies, Graham new the holiness therein, the ways in which the body can express the ineffable when words alone simply cannot. “The body never lies,” she famously reminds us.

Martha Graham

Born in May 1894 to a strict Presbyterian family, her first experience of dance was in her family’s church. As a 2 year-old child, Graham stepped into the aisle separating the otherwise very still pews of her Presbyterian church and began to dance. It was likely the playful and innocent dance of a child, lacking any inkling of scandal, technique, or even relation to the scripture or overall spirit of worship. Yet it was immediately condemned. Graham was shamed, disciplined, and forbidden to dance in such a place again. Reflecting on her experience from childhood, she remembers: “I was born in Pittsburgh of Scotch-Irish parentage. My people were strict religionists who felt that dancing was sin. They frowned on all worldly pleasures, but were particularly horrified at my showing an early tendency toward an art that seemed grossly sensuous to them. My upbringing led me to fear it myself. But, California swung me the direction of paganism (Graham, Blood Memory).”

When her family relocated to California, Graham’s dance training began in earnest. She studied at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing under the leadership of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Their influence would continue throughout her life. Also vitally important to Graham’s artistic and spiritual development was Jungian psychology, the writings of Nietzsche, dances and rituals from a variety of Native American traditions, and the mythic work of Joseph Campbell. A voracious reader, Graham claimed that she would be just fine deserted on an island alone as long as she had a dictionary and the bible; she also read virtually everything Joseph Campbell, Jung, or Nietzsche ever wrote, asserting that all of this philosophical and spiritual work were essential to her choreography and artistry.

In fact, she created more than 200 choreographic works with themes of goddess figures, saints, angels, and the Madonna. Acrobats of God, Adorations, Diversion of Angels, Eyes of the Goddess, Judith, Lucifer, Out of This World, The Plain of Prayer, Primitive Mysteries, Madonna, Seraphic Dialogue, Triumph of St. Joan, Visionary Recital, and Herodiade are just some of the myriad examples of her choreography that feature the sacred, many of which also highlight strong female characters or the feminine divine. Primitive Mysteries may be one of her most famous choreographic works. Not only did it feature her newfound technique of curves, angles, and simplicity, but it was danced by a group of women, illustrating that women could command an audience’s attention without male partners. In her autobiography, Blood Memory, Graham reflects on Primitive Mysteries and Heretic, saying, “I felt at the time that I was a heretic. I was outside the realm of women. I did not dance the way that people danced…In many ways I showed onstage what most people came to the theatre to avoid.”

In these ways, dance scholar, Janet Roseman notes that most dance critics have failed to realize that Graham was a foundational spiritual thinker, in addition to being a brilliant dancer and choreographer. About Graham, St. Denise, and Duncan, Roseman asserts, “The fact that all three women created their own schools of training, successfully performed around the world, and ran their own businesses tells us much about their perseverance in a man’s domain (Janet Roseman, Dance Was Her Religion, xix).” Not only was Graham’s work renowned in dance and business, but she entered into the ultimate of men’s domains, the church:

I danced at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, a wonderful old church in the East Village set up in the form of an old meeting house. I was in front of the altar rail they had then. I wore a blue dress and I hovered over the crib, which represented the crib of the baby Jesus. The Bishop turned to one of his associates and said, “What is she doing?” And he slowly took off all of his insignia, one by one, the collar, the ring, and so on. All this I could see very clearly as I began my dance. Not exactly a strong confidence builder; it just got me mad. After he watched me dance for a while he put them back on. His disapproval of dance seemed to have ended. He realized I was not going to create a scandal; it was safe to return to being the Bishop. I was all right, I guess. (Graham, Blood Memory, 141)

Graham’s accolades extend farther than almost any dancer: the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the artistic emissary for the United States abroad, the first dancer to perform at the White House, Fulbright Fellowships. But I do not iconize her because of her accolades, impressive though they are. I call her a holy woman, canonizing her into folk feminist sainthood, because she honored and the affirmed women’s bodies, reminding us all that wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.

Her honored, affirmed, and dancing body encompasses the entire canvas, the classic lines of her modern technique evident in her right leg lifted mid developé, as her heart cries out to us:

Her heart cried out,
“Wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.”
So, her body danced
And the world became more holy…

In her 97th year, Graham passed away. When she died she was at work on an unfinished choreographic piece entitled Goddess—fitting for this goddess of the dance. About her dance, artistry, spirituality, and choreography, Graham asserted that “you should be ravished by what you see; it should leave a mark on your life.” You have ravished us, indeed. For this, the ground upon which we stand is a bit more holy.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, and Holy Women Icons. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

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Categories: Art, Dance, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Goddess, Herstory, Sisterhood, Spiritual Journey, Symbols

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6 replies

  1. I love your posts here Dr. Angela! Dancing begins in the heart, even someone in a wheelchair can dance fpr joy. And a very moving story Martha Graham tells. The Bishop taking off his collar and ring, so an not to be defiled, maybe remembered Jesus saying: “We piped for you and you would not dance; we mourned and you would not weep.”

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  2. Wonderful! I hadn’t known of Martha Graham before.

    I found the image of the bishop divesting himself of his insignia to be powerful. Perhaps the dance moved him to discover a healthier way of living – outside the power of patriarchy. I wonder if it changed him profoundly?

    Ever the optimist … ! :-)

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  3. I love your paintings and your posts! :)

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  4. Lovely post! Like many, I too consider the most sacred words in the bible to be “Miriam and the women danced.” Dancing literally moves our soul. Thank you for this lovely reminder of Martha Graham.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It’s always encouraging to learn how these holy women have inspired and emboldened others!

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