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Martha Graham - The Graham Technique

This is an excerpt from Beginning Modern Dance With HKPropel Access by Miriam Giguere.

The function of dance is communication. . . . By communication is not meant to tell a story or to project an idea, but to communicate experience by means of action . . . out of this came a different use of the body as an instrument, as the violin is an instrument. Body is the basic instrument, intuitive, instinctive. As a result an entirely contemporary set of technics was evolved.

Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, 1998, p. 50

Probably the most iconic image of modern dance in the general public is of a woman clad in a dark leotard and tights seated on the floor reaching upward with her torso curving backward or while standing on one leg with her other limbs outstretched and her focus downward. These are images from the Martha Graham (1894-1991) technique. They are two of her signature movements: the contraction and strike pose, respectively. For many people, modern dance is synonymous with the work of Martha Graham. Known for her theatricality, severity, solemnity, and emotionally charged dances, Graham was a true original. The mythic content of her work was introspective in its involvement with human emotions and the personal exploration of deep-seated motivations. Graham herself described her dances as stylized to represent the times in which she was creating: "Life today is nervous, sharp and zigzag. It often stops in mid-air. That is what I aim for in my dances" (Mazo, 1977, p. 161).

In addition to the power and originality of Graham's choreography, she was known for developing a codified system of exercises that could be used to train dancers in her style. Much of that syllabus comes to us today directly from Graham, and in many places is still taught in precisely the same manner. Graham believed that the first task when working with students "is to teach them to admire strength - the virile gestures that are evocative of the only true beauty. To try to show that ugliness may actually be beautiful if it cries out with the voice of power" (Mazo, 1977, p. 162). It was this admiration of powerful gesture that often gave the work an angular and stylized appearance. But it is not true that lyricism or nuanced movement is not valued in the technique. Graham developed her technique over time and softened some of the exercises to ensure that the movements were not overly rigid.

Purpose of Dance

Graham took a psychoanalytical viewpoint on dance. She believed that the purpose of dance is to illuminate the life and struggles of the human experience, paying particular attention to humans' inner nature. Her dances were dramatic expressions of the conflict between the individual and society in an attempt to look at the internal motivations of humanity. Graham believed that using dance for that purpose would bring psychoemotional enlightenment. In 1938, Graham wrote that "Art is the evocation of man's inner nature. Through art we find man's unconscious - race memory - is the history and psyche of the race brought into focus" (Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, 1998, p. 50).

Since the purpose of dance is to translate emotional experience in physical form, in the Graham technique, every movement must have a clear and perceivable meaning. This does not mean the movements must be realistic, only that the stylization must be meaningful and recognizable to the viewer as well as to the performer. Graham was clear on this principle: "Everything that a dancer does, even in the most lyrical thing, has a definite and prescribed meaning" (Mazo, 1977, p. 189). Further, she believed that the clear training of the dancer gave a freedom to the dancer's ability to express the emotions and ideas of the choreographer. In Graham's own words, training was the key to articulation: "If you have no form, after a certain length of time you become inarticulate. Your training only gives you freedom" (Mazo, 1977, p. 157). Thus the rigor of your training was all part of the purpose of the art form - and Graham believed in rigorous training! Her demand for total discipline and attention during class, and her anger when this was not accorded her, are well documented. While the movements in the technique itself are not natural gestures, they are artificial ones; the inner commitment to them and the emotional sincerity of the dancers presenting them are entirely real.

Relation to Space and Gravity

The Graham technique has a clear relationship to the floor and to gravity. Like Humphrey-Limón, Graham dancers are creatures of the earth who respect the power of gravity. However, unlike the previously discussed technique where the power to pull away from gravity gives you energy and a search for equilibrium, the Graham technique believes that the fall is the acknowledgment of the power of gravity. Many of the exercises in the Graham syllabus require the dancer to fall powerfully into the floor, and these movements are seen repeatedly throughout the Graham repertory. To Graham, this was not just a physical act; it was a psychological one. "We teach the falls to the left because, unless you are left-handed, the right side of the body is the motor side; the left hand is the unknown. You fall into the left hand - into the unknown" (Mazo, 1977, p. 157). The exploration of the space of the stage, including the floor itself, is part of the emotional content of the technique.

Because space can reveal emotional content, according to Graham, the set is an integral part of the ability of a dance to communicate. When Graham's choreography took on huge mythic subjects, such as in the dances Clytemnestra (1958) or Night Journey (1947), they used the entire expanse of the stage. When they were particularly introspective, as in Errand into the Maze (1947) or Lamentation (1930), the use of the stage space was minimal. Space itself is part of the emotional landscape of a Graham dance.

Origin of Movement

According to Martha Graham's philosophy, movement is generated from three places: the action of contraction and release, the pelvis, and the emotional inner self. The contraction, or strong pulling back and curving of the torso, and the release of this movement by returning to a straight torso are symbolic of the dichotomies in life. It is the contrast between desire and duty, between fear and courage, between weakness and strength.

The repeated use of the contraction and release gives a rhythmic energy to the movements in this technique, and its execution is central to the seated, lying, and standing exercises of the training method (figure 8.2). The torso and pelvis, in this way, are the central focus of the movement, while the arms and legs move in concert with the spine.
Contraction while seated (a) and standing (b).

The series of exercises known as spirals, done seated in fourth position, is an excellent example of how the pelvis, rooted to the floor and drawing its energy from this proximity, is the first part of the body to move (figure 8.3).

Graham taught students that the hip bone should move as a jewel in a watch movement. This makes the pelvis the point of stability and the motivator of the movement. A clear articulation of the pelvis will definitely result from your study of this style of modern dance. Whether the movement begins with a contraction of the torso or a movement of the hip bone, it must be done with strength. Both lyrical and dramatic movement must be equally strong.

Because of this quality of strength and the importance of intentional meaning behind every movement, you could say that movement in the Graham technique begins in the mind, especially in the dancer's subconscious. In the Graham style, everything is motivated from the inner life. If this is not there, the movements become sterile. As Graham said, "This lack of motivation will lead to meaningless movement, and meaningless movement leads to decadence" (Horosko, 2002, p. 75). Every movement in the technique results from an emotional impulse. Graham told her students that if you must mark a movement, mark the physicality but never the dramatic meaning.

Many of the movements in the Graham technique use terms from ballet, such as the numbered positions of the feet and the terms plié and relevé. When you take a Graham class, you can expect to hear many of these basic terms from ballet used regularly. Although Graham's technique was in many ways a rebellion against ballet, it did, like all of the early modern styles, overlap in some ways with a classical dance vocabulary. There are turned-out as well as parallel movements in the Graham technique. Like a ballet class, the work in a Graham technique class is always in the same order: floor work, breathing, knees, standing center work, barre work, traveling across the floor. While the syllabus has a set order and structure of the exercises, the number of repetitions and whether everything from the syllabus is included in a particular class is up to the individual instructor.

Relationship to Music

Much of what Martha Graham believed about the relationship between dance and music was a result of her longtime association with Denishawn music director Louis Horst. He served as advisor, mentor, and partner to Graham for the majority of her career. He convinced Graham that she should commission music for her dances rather than use already-existing music, a practice she regularly upheld. Graham gave the composer a set script of action, mood, and timing for the work. She listened to sections of score while it was being composed but waited to choreograph the work until the score was completely finished. Horst, and consequently Graham, preferred modern music as the accompaniment to dance.

Whether the music was written specifically for the dance or not, Graham, under Horst's influence, believed that music should be sublimated to the dance. As Horst himself said, "The question is not how great a dance composer is, but what he does for the dance. The composer-accompanist must expect to sacrifice some of his identity as a musician when he writes or plays for the dance" (Mazo, 1977, p. 194). The function of the music was to support the mood and emotional content of the piece, not to be the guiding stimulus for its creation.

Learn more about Beginning Modern Dance.