Martha Graham

American dancer and choreographer

Martha Graham (May 11, 1894April 1, 1991) was an American dancer and choreographer regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance, and is widely considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Martha Graham, shown here with Bertram Ross (1961)


Art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.
  • We look at the dance to impart the sensation of living in an affirmation of life, to energize the spectator into keener awareness of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety, and the wonder of life. This is the function of the American dance.
    • "The American Dance", in Modern Dance, ed. Virginia Stewart (1945).
  • There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
  • Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
    • As quoted in The Runner's Book of Daily Inspiration : A Year of Motivation, Revelation, and Instruction (1999) by Kevin Nelson, p. 11.

I Am A Dancer (1952)

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living.
I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of mankind — the landscape of the human soul.
Written for the radio program This I Believe, published in This I Believe, Vol. 2 (1952); also in The Routledge Dance Studies Reader (1998) by Alexandra Carter and Janet O'Shea, p. 96
  • I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. in each it is the performance of a dedicated set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes the shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some areas an athlete of God.
  • To practice means to perform, in the face of all obstacles some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.
  • I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living.
  • The most brilliant scientific discoveries will in time change and perhaps grow obsolete as new scientific manifestations emerge. But art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.
  • Many times I hear the phrase "the dance of life". It is an expression that touches me deeply, for the instrument through which the dance speaks is also the instrument through which life is lived — the human body.
  • Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to paradise of the achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries, even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration, there are daily small deaths. Then I need all the comfort that practice has stored in my memory, a tenacity of faith.
  • The body is shaped, disciplined, honoured, and in time, trusted. The movement becomes clean, precise, eloquent, truthful. Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it. This might be called the law of the dancer's life — the law which governs the outer aspects.
  • The main thing, of course, always, is the fact that there is only one of you in the world, just one, and if that is not fulfilled then something has been lost. Ambition is not enough; necessity is everything.
  • 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.
  • The next time you look into the mirror, just look at the way the ears rest next to the head; look at the way the hairline grows; think of all the little bones in your wrist. It is a miracle. And the dance is a celebration of that miracle.
    • Variant: Think of the magic of that foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It's a miracle, and the dance is a celebration of that miracle.
  • I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of mankind — the landscape of the human soul. I hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human being can be.
  • The body is a sacred garment: it is what you enter life in and what you depart life with, and it should be treated with honour, and with joy and with fear as well. But always, though, with blessing.
  • I am absorbed in the magic of movement and light. Movement never lies. It is the magic of what I call the outer space of the imagination.

New York Times interview (1985)

To me, the body says what words cannot.
Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body.
"Martha Graham Reflects on Her Art and a Life in Dance" (31 March 1985); republished in The New York Times Guide to the Arts of the 20th Century (2002), p. 2734.
  • When you start with an idea, or something hits you, then you have to follow that through to the end, and it's the following through to the end that makes the pattern. That, for me, is choreography.
  • Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery — what it all means… 
  • I love words very much. I've always loved to talk, and I've always love words — the words that rest in your mouth, what words mean and how you taste them and so on. And for me the spoken word can be used almost as a gesture.
  • The erotic element is life, but doesn't have to absorb you, it doesn't have to be a naughty word. It's the love of life in many ways.
  • I've always regarded eroticism as a beautiful word. I'm not ashamed to be linked to it. I would be ashamed to be linked to flamboyant sexuality; that's a part of life, but it isn't all of it.
  • To me, the only sin is mediocrity.
  • I don't try to tell the dancers exactly what a dance means before they do it. I can correct it and tell them what they have done after they have done it, and what it means to me. But I don't say, "Be fearful here," "Be angry here," because I think that is intrusion.
  • I think comedy is the most difficult thing in the world, I really do. One can always lament, you know — but to laugh in the face of life, that's very hard. And for me the great tragedian should also be a great comedian.
  • Dancing is very like poetry. It's like poetic lyricism, sometimes, it's like the rawness of dramatic poetry, it's like the terror — or it can be like a terrible revelation of meaning. Because when you light on a word it strikes you to your heart.
  • To me, the body says what words cannot. I believe that dance was the first art. A philosopher has said that dance and architecture were the first arts. I believe that dance was first because it's gesture, it's communication. That doesn't mean it's telling a story, but it means it's communicating a feeling, a sensation to people.
    Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body. And it's partly the language that we don't want to show.
  • I use the words gods and goddesses principally, I think, to mean beautiful bodies — bodies that are absolute instruments. And I believe in discipline, I believe in a very definite technique. You have no right to go before a public without an adequate technique, just because you feel. Anything feels — a leaf feels, a storm feels — what right have you to do that? You have to have speech, and it's a cultivated speech.


  • Movement never lies.
    • A phrase she often used, which she credited to her father.
  • Some of you are doomed to be artists.
    • Though often used by Graham, she credited this to Robert Edmond Jones. Agnes de Mille states in "The Life and Work of Martha Graham" (2010), p. 215: It was Jones who used to say to his classes, "Some of you are doomed to be artists." Martha picked up this phrase and used it many times thereafter.
Wikipedia has an article about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: