Tag Archives: love

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”


Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.

Addicted to Self-Denial: Can We Recover?

 “There is no complete recovery from a fundamentalist childhood” (82).

So writes Margaret Miles in her latest book, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter. Miles was the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard Divinity School, the president of Graduate Theological Union, and… a fundamentalist?

Here Miles tells her surprising tale with the help of a longtime companion, Augustine’s Confessions, stating, at the outset, “I am still a fundamentalist” (7). Really?
Sitting in a packed lecture hall, at Harvard Divinity School in the late 80s, I listened, week after week, as Miles carefully paced us through 1700 years of Christian history. The year-long course was achingly ambitious. Firmly, quietly, Miles picked through the thicket, complementing our reading assignments with handouts of primary quotations and slide shows of art and architecture.

With each person, text, or event, she would unfailingly find something beautiful, something resonant, something human, even in what seemed unlikely, repulsive, or absurd. Why would a human say or do this? What help and what harm could such words and actions cause? What problems were solved? Which concerns assuaged? I would leave class feeling as if my soul had been nourished.
In Fundaughter (Miles’ nickname for the book), Miles turns this empathic eye on her own upbringing, intent on finding the beauty amidst the pain, the help and the harm, in habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that she learned from her parents and their “fundamentalist” Christianity.

Even so, the metaphor of recovery in the quotation above reveals her hand: there was more harm than help. By 22, as a young wife and mother, Miles suffered from a duodenal ulcer, due, in large part she relates, to the well-internalized core of her parents’ fundamentalism: to be a self is to be a sinner. “I, when I am ‘me,’ am a sinner” (23).

As Miles recounts, she has spent years undoing the damage wrought by this idea, slowly learning to catch and release the grip of hard-to-break habits, and to affirm her pleasures as vibrant sources of self-knowing.

Hasn’t Miles recovered?
At first glance, the choice of Augustine’s Confessions as a “model” for recovering from a fundamentalist childhood seems wildly ironic, and Miles knows it. Augustine is frequently blamed for formulating the very idea of the sinning self from which Miles suffers. Yet, as Miles unfolds her story alongside his, Augustine appears as more than a model for how to narrate a self. He appears as a character as well.

Prompted by the pain of her ulcer, Miles enters psychotherapy and returns to college, where she first reads the Confessions. While therapy invites her out of herself, it is the experience of reading Augustine that allows her to understand the ringing, stinging words of her youth as evocative descriptions of frustrated, conflicting desires. Augustine helps her hear the vocabulary of her childhood as her parents’ attempt to create a world whose every moment is infused with passion, significance, and even love.

It is not a world in which she can live, and Augustine guides her in making new moves. It is Augustine who teaches her that the proper response to our sinning selves is sorrow and sympathy—not punishment. It is Augustine who affirms that there are multiple possible interpretations of the Bible—not just her father’s. It is Augustine who identifies God as Life, Love, and Beauty—and not just a personified male. It is Augustine who guides her to see how God works through the desires and passions of our bodily selves—rather than judging us for having them. It is Augustine who encourages her, by his own example, to “relax a little” from herself, in humility. For as he repeats again and again, while on earth, we humans only see through a glass darkly.

Nevertheless, as Miles admits, Augustine only takes her so far. She writes, quoting Richard Rorty, that the real disabusing of harmful habits happens when we entertain “sparkling new ideas or utopian visions of glorious new institutions” (120). Miles needs a new god—a vision of love as something other than (self) sacrifice and renunciation.

In the final chapters of Fundaughter, Miles turns to one of Augustine’s inspirations, Plotinus, in whose writings she finds a vision of God as Beauty that guides her to this day. For Plotinus, Beauty is One, present in the interconnectedness of all that is. Providence is of the whole, indifferent to its particular parts. As such, our best attitude is to accept with gratitude the love that is present for us in the whole. As Miles describes—and I have known—she actively cultivates an ability to see Beauty in everything and everyone, even in the inextricable entwinings of grief and joy.

Doing so she knows: “I share in the circulation of love” (205), so much so that she can state, “I love being here” (218).
What then, are we to make of Miles claim that she is “still a fundamentalist”? As she tells it, she remains prey to habits of thinking and feeling that surface, uninvited and unannounced, pitting her against her desires and privileging (intellectual) work as the path to salvation.

Her honesty raises the question: why is it so difficult to reform habits of self-as-sinner thinking? Why do such self-harming patterns of sensing and responding to our own desires have such power? Why do they stick so tightly to our bodily selves?

As Miles describes, her only “sin” as a young girl was wanting love. Because she wanted love—from her parents in particular—she was willing to believe in their God, to be baptized in their community, and to submit to the Will they said was more holy than her own.

We are all vulnerable in just this way, for who isn’t born wanting love? This impulse to connect with others is so strong because our lives depend on it. Every human needs a nurturing touch in order to build body and brain capable of relating to the world in mutually life-sustaining ways. And it is an impulse that inevitably encounters moments when desire yawns open, unmet, and feelings of doubt, fear, anger and pain rush in. We feel what I call the sting of impossible desire (see Family Planting).

When suffering from this sting, a belief in one’s self as a sinner can be forcefully effective. It gives meaning to the pain (it is my fault); it prescribes action that I can do (deny my desires); it promises pleasure (of eventual reward). It allows a person to draw a line between good and evil that passes right through her or his bodily self, and pretend to stand on one side. The combination is addictive (and the hallmark of all addictions): we get pleasure out of denying our bodily selves. The more we deny our selves, the more pleasure is ours.

Such habits stick, in other words, because they work. And they work in a way that the philosopher Nietzsche astutely observed. Not only do they yield pleasure, they also destroy our ability to generate alternative, self-and-life-affirming values. They train our attention away from the sources of our creativity and freedom that are present in the beating and breathing of our bodily movement.

Is recovery possible? Once we understand how and why these habits stick, then we also know that there is no place or person or health to “recover.” Our only option is to engage and exercise the very same power of human creativity that gave rise to the beliefs and practices of “fundamentalism” in the first place. We need to create patterns of sensing and responding to the sting of impossible desire that affirm the pleasure and power of desire—even when unmet—as itself a source of wisdom.

How? Here, my work meets Miles’. It is a problem I have been writing about since leaving Harvard, as readers of this blog will know. In short: by cultivating a sensory awareness of the movements that we are making, we can begin to participate more consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming. We can begin to find wisdom in our frustrated desires for food, sex, and spirit (see What a Body Knows), and learn to greet the challenges in our primary relationships as opportunities for discovering our capacity to love (see Family Planting).

We can find, in the energy of our desire, guidance in creating values and ideas that better align with what we need to become who we are and give what we have to give.

Interestingly, when read as Miles reads him, Augustine too is moving his readers towards a kind of conscious participation in their bodily becoming. He attends intently to his feelings of frustration and discomfort and disease, and insists on finding in them signs of a need to move differently—toward God. He seeks to transform or recreate the meaning of his pain, such that it becomes the enabling condition of his greatest pleasures.

And so does Miles. In writing, she too is transforming the meaning of her pain. While she may still be “a fundamentalist,” what it means to be one is far different for her now than it was when she was young, and is not at all what her parents had in mind. Her “fundamentalism” is an enabling condition of the freedom and understanding and pleasures she has found. In calling herself a “fundaughter,” she is naming herself, and bringing into being the world in which she wants to live. As did her parents.
We don’t just find Beauty, we make it. We participate in its unfolding, as best and as consciously as we can. And because we do, the question is ours to ask: what will we create?  What are we creating? The health and well-being of our selves, our communities, and our planet are at stake.