Martha Graham Biography: The Remarkable Life Story of Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an American dancer and choreographer who revolutionized modern dance during her long and prolific career. Graham created over 180 works and a new dance technique that emphasized contraction and release.

She was the first dancer ever to perform at the White House, travel abroad as a cultural ambassador, and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Graham continues to be regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th-century dance.

When was Martha Graham born and where did she grow up?

Martha Graham was born on May 11, 1894, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh). Her father was a physician who specialized in psychiatric disorders. Graham grew up in Santa Barbara, California after her family moved there in 1908 when she was 14 years old.

What was Graham’s early dance training?

As a young girl, Graham resisted dance at first. But after seeing Ruth St. Denis perform in Los Angeles when she was in her mid-teens, Graham became inspired to begin studying dance. She started with lessons at the Denishawn School, run by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.

Here is a brief overview of Martha Graham’s early dance training:<

table> Age 19 Began studying at Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts 1920-1923 Performed with the Denishawn dance company 1923 Became a dance teacher at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, New York 1923-1931 Taught and performed at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University

When did Martha Graham open her own studio and what was her choreographic process?

In 1926, at age 32, Martha Graham gave her first independent concert in New York City. This prompted her to open the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in 1926 to teach her own unique dance technique.

Graham created her major works by using emotions and contemporary topics as inspiration. She would begin her process with extensive research, followed by collaboration with composers and set designers.

Here is an overview of key elements of Graham’s choreographic process:<

table> Improvisation Graham worked in a studio with dancers to create movements Concept She created a central concept, theme, or emotion for the work Experimentation Tried out movements and gestures until satisfying ones emerged Musical score Collaborated with contemporary composers Set design Worked with acclaimed visual artists and designers

What were Martha Graham’s key contributions to modern dance?

Martha Graham made revolutionary contributions to the art of dance in areas like technique, choreography, and subject matter. Some of her key innovations include:

Graham Technique

  • Emphasized contraction and release
  • Used the pelvis and spine as the source of movement
  • Trained dancers to initiate movement from their core

Thematic Dances

  • Explored contemporary and social issues
  • Drew inspiration from Greek myths, American history, psychology


  • Worked with leading visual artists, musicians, and designers

Expanded Dance Vocabulary

  • Created sharp, angular and stark movements
  • Utilized gestures from everyday life

Overall, Martha Graham completely transformed concert dance. She helped dance break free of rigid ballet conventions and pioneer a bold new art form she called “the choreography of tragedy.”

What were some of Martha Graham’s most famous choreographic works?

During her over 60-year career, Martha Graham created over 180 groundbreaking dances. Some of her most acclaimed and seminal choreographic works include:

Lamentation (1930)

  • Graham enclosed herself in stretch jersey fabric to convey grief

Frontier (1935)

  • Depicted American pioneer women with expansive movements

Steps in the Street (1936)

  • Response to the rise of fascism in Spain in the 1930s

Appalachian Spring (1944)

  • Collaboration with composer Aaron Copland depicting the American frontier

Night Journey (1947)

  • Retelling of the Oedipus myth from Jocasta’s perspective

The Rite of Spring (1984)

  • Graham’s take on the Stravinsky-Nijinsky classic

These works demonstrated her dramatic choreography and ability to vividly capture emotional themes. Other famous Graham works explored historical figures like Emily Dickinson, the Bronte sisters, and Joan of Arc.

What honors did Martha Graham receive over her storied career?

Due to her artistic brilliance and the immense impact she had on dance, Martha Graham garnered significant recognition and numerous accolades. Some major honors she received include:

1948 Dance Magazine Award
1950 American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award
1955 Capezio Dance Award
1957 Handel Medallion from NYC for contributions to the city’s culture
1976 Kennedy Center Honors
1981 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant”

In 1976, she also became the first dancer or choreographer to receive the highest civilian honor in America – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Additionally, in 1998 Graham became the first dancer ever inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

What was Martha Graham’s later life and legacy?

Even as she entered her 90s, Martha Graham continued to choreograph, dance, and run her company, despite using a wheelchair during her final years due to arthritis. Some highlights from her later life and enduring legacy include:

  • Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992 at age 96
  • Taught at Juilliard as late as the 1980s to inspire new generations
  • Her Company continues today with over 140 Graham works in active repertory
  • Received a Google Doodle on her 117th birthday in 2011

Graham passed away on April 1, 1991, at age 96. Often called the “Picasso of Dance,” Martha Graham shed the restrictive rules of classical ballet and pioneered a unique American style of modern dance focused on intense emotion and contemporary themes. She inspired generations of choreographers, created the first dance department at a major university, and single-handedly transformed 20th century art.


Where was Martha Graham’s dance company based?

Martha Graham founded her dance company, Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, in New York City in 1926. It has been headquartered there ever since, making it the longest continuously operating dance company in American history.

The Martha Graham Dance Company still performs and teaches Graham Technique out of the Martha Graham Studio in Manhattan.

How did Martha Graham revolutionize costume design?

Martha Graham completely broke from the traditional costumes used in ballet and early modern dance, choosing instead to use clothing that reflected the themes of her works and freed movement.

Her costumes included shawls, stretch jersey dresses, loose tops with pants or skirts, and flared dresses. Graham collaborated with famed designers like Donagh Cretton and Halston to create these signature costumes.

Was Martha Graham ever married?

Martha Graham never married, preferring to focus on her artistic career. She did have several romantic relationships over her life, including dancer Erick Hawkins who she was partnered with for over 20 years before they split. In her later years, Graham entered into a long-term relationship with a younger man, Ron Protas, who helped manage her company.

How did Martha Graham’s technique differ from ballet?

Whereas ballet focused on light, graceful movements, Martha Graham’s modern dance style featured intense, jagged and angular motions emanating from the core. Pelvic and spinal contractions created force for sharp, strong gestures and steps.