Women Who Inspire: Martha Graham

Alicia Barney

Posted on March 25 2014

Shabby Apple is a woman-owned, woman-run company aiming to empower women as well as dress them. With that mission in mind, we’re starting a new series to highlight the many women who inspire us. Women Who Inspire will celebrate individuals who have done interesting things and that make us want to do more, too.

Meet Martha Graham, a pioneer of dance close to the heart of Shabby Apple founder (and trained modern dancer) Athelia Woolley LeSueur.

Five Things To Know:

1. She’s the mother of modern dance.

Graham developed a dynamic style that expressed strong emotion—and was drastically different from classical ballet. Sharp movements, contractions and falls characterized the style that early reviewers called “ugly” (Congress even declared it obscene) but is now remembered as groundbreaking and genius.

2. She danced into her 70s.

Though dancers today often stop performing by 30, Graham didn’t retire from the stage until the age of 75. Then she kept choreographing and touring with her company until the year she died, at 96 years old.

3. She trained the greats.

Graham’s legacy doesn’t end with her own talent. She founded The Martha Graham Dance Company—one of the oldest dance troupes in the United States—where she was one of the first to regularly hire Asian and African American dancers. Her students included dance legends Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.

4. Her work had substance.

Her dances tackled issues from the Great Depression to the Spanish Civil War, often acting as political commentary. She was inspired by women throughout history—creating dances about Joan of Arc, Emily Dickinson and pioneer women.

5. She was fueled by passion.

Graham said that technique doesn’t make great dancers—passion does. She believed that dance’s form should come out of emotion. “I wanted to begin not with characters or ideas, but with movements,” she said. “I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.”


Photo via PBS.

Photo by Chris Alexander via Martha Graham Dance Company.

Photo by Barbara Morgan via Smithsonian.com.

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