Tag Archives: modern dance

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.

Wisdom from the World of Dance

My latest post. With a new twist.

What if we considered the practice of contemporary dance as a wisdom tradition — a set of practices engaged in the ongoing search for better ways of living?

Read on…


Not Allowed to Dance? A year in a Haitian-American dance company

I’ve been looking back this week at the twists and turns in my path and asking: how did I get here? How did I get to this place where I feel compelled to make a case for dance as a vital art?  I’ve been prompted to do so by some quality time spent with Yvonne Daniel’s thoughtful, thorough book, Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomble (2003).

In Daniel’s account of these three ritual dance traditions of the African Diaspora, she deftly, rigorously elaborates how the act of learning and repeating patterns of movement serves as an effective conduit for the culture’s most important values, ideals, and knowledge. These “dance-dependent ritual structures with dance-initiating objectives” (4), she affirms, are “social medicine.” Their movement patterns serve as “blueprints and choices for possible action,”  as “repositories” of legend, attitude, and belief that promise “survival and salvation” (64), while guiding persons along “a path to social responsibility” (273). Yes!

Reading these words propels me back to 1990-91, the year I began a PhD program in the Study of Religion—and the year I accepted an invitation from a Haitian dancer, Patric Lacroix, to join his Haitian-American Dance Company. Little did I know that my time with Patric would set me on the path of my doctoral work: delving deep into the philosophy and theology of the modern western tradition, in search of allies who valued the act of dancing as a medium of religious experience and expression.

In Patric’s company, I was one of three white women, dancing alongside Patric and his Haitian niece and nephew. As Patric explained, members of the local Haitian community wouldn’t send their children to study with him. They wanted their children to become dentists and doctors, not dancers. He needed dancers.

That year with Patric, I danced—a lot. Company members were expected to take class in traditional Haitian dance three or four times a week, most of the time with live drumming. We learned the names of the Haitian dances—yanvalou, zepol, mahi—and the names of the divinities, or lwa, for whom each dance was performed. The company spent each weekend rehearsing pieces that Patric had choreographed. In one of our dances, we enacted a ritual, pretending to be “ridden” or possessed by the lwa whose presence the dancing invokes. We did so as professional dancers, not religious practitioners. Even so, the power and precision, the beauty of the forms, was undeniable.

I loved every minute of dancing with Patric. I loved making the Haitian movements. Rather than working so hard to pull myself up and in as I had been doing for years in my ballet and modern classes, I bent low and pulsed, undulating with the rhythmic beat. Within weeks after joining the company, chronic pain in my lower back disappeared. I felt stronger and more grounded.

Meanwhile, in a course on Feminist Theology, I wrote a research paper on gender roles in Haitian ritual dance. In a class on American religious history, when it came time to read Al Raboteau’s Slave Religion, I offered to give a live solo performance of Haitian dance, and did.

When the company performed, it was most often for members of the Haitian community in Boston. Even though community members would not send their children to dance with Patric, they still packed his concerts, and invited us to participate in fundraisers and fashion shows held at highend hotels to benefit people back in Haiti.

The most formative performance for me, however, occurred when we were on tour in West Palm Beach, Florida. Some Catholic sisters who worked with the Haitian community there were organizing a festival celebrating Haitian culture. The sisters invited our company to be the culminating event. When we arrived, we learned that we might not have an audience. As the sisters explained, Protestant pastors in the community had been speaking out in their pulpits, counseling their congregants not to attend the dance performance.

The company gathered in the local auditorium, unsure of what to expect. Soon enough, an audience started to stream in—made up almost entirely of children. The parents who were not coming were nevertheless sending their children.

My heart soared. In the first dance, I entered alone from stage left, skipping and shaking with Haitian-inspired modern dance movements to “Conga” by Gloria Estefan. The rest of the company joined me. All of us were on fire.

At the close of the final piece, as we took our bows, the children in the audience rushed the stage. As the drums beat on, we all danced together, kids and company members, weaving and bobbing and hugging. It was one of our most moving performances ever.

At the end of that year, Patric was shifting his focus to singing. I was left to wonder what next. My experience with the company catalyzed me on my way. As enamored as I was of the Haitain forms, I knew that my path lay elsewhere. I had to discover a way to crack open my own modern western protestant tradition to the power and beauty of dance. I had to address the fact that people who wanted to succeed within a modern western context felt that they could only do so at the expense of their ritual dance practices and traditions. I wanted to add to the pool of philosophical resources that scholars have for acknowledging the importance and value of dancing as knowledge.

Daniel bears witness to the challenge. In describing her research process, she notes, “I search for words in English that correspond closely to what participants say” (246). Closely. Then she discusses those choices with participants. As she explains, she is guided in the process by her own experience as a dancer. She draws upon her trained sensory awareness to help recreate in herself the movement patterns that these ritual dances entail, so as to understand better the transformative impact of making them. As she confirms, “Dancing is a method of perceiving and understanding the human condition” (269).

Here is where my project connects with hers. I am building an argument for why this is so that supports work of those in the field who are learning and documenting ritual dance forms. Research from across scholarly disciplines is confirming the primacy of movement in the development of human empathy, compassion, intelligence, and adaptability. It is time, now as never before, to make a case for Why We Dance.