Dancing With Martha Graham

by Nancy King

Martha Graham 1948 via Wikipedia Commons LicenseThe Martha Graham School of Dance was in an old mansion on East 63rd street between 2nd and 3rd avenues in New York City. Walking into the building was like entering the temple of a high priestess whose devotees all looked alike—the men, gorgeous, tall, well built, strutting around in tights so revealing I blushed each time I tried not to look. The women, tall, thin, yet muscular, their long dark hair pulled into buns or twists, not a hair daring to disturb the sleek coiffures. 

Although the bus ride to the school was long, the distance I traveled meant leaving a world I sort of knew how to manage for one filled with unexpected challenges, where I could be unceremoniously discarded, not fit for living, dumped onto a pile of rejects. When I found the courage to speak, it felt like a shout but was probably barely a whisper. “I’m here to register for the Beginning Graham Technique Class,” I said to the young woman, whose jet black hair was pulled into a painfully tight chignon, her cheekbones jutting out from her sculptured face, her dark eyes rimmed with black, the red of her lipstick looking like a bloody wound. She was too busy flexing her arches to pay attention to me, but I wasn’t about to let anyone keep me from the class. “I’m here to register for Beginning Graham.”

“Name, please.” I told her. She deigned to look it up on a clipboard on her desk. “Right. Advanced class—meets at 5:30. Be here no later than 5:15, dressed, warmed up, ready to begin promptly. Martha doesn’t tolerate latecomers. 

“Martha? Me? Advanced class? There’s been a mistake! I need to register for the beginning class.” Just the thought of being in the same room with Martha Graham was enough to make me tremble. The previous summer, at the Connecticut College School of Dance Summer Program she had taught a master class, her short stature belying her magnetic power. When she pointed her bony finger at me, her dark eyes flashing, it was all I could do to breathe, much less move. I felt her presence even when I couldn’t see her. When she not so gently laid her hands on my back to correct a position I froze, paralyzed, holding the difficult new position despite the pain I felt. It took three days to recover from the strain. No, there was absolutely no way I was either good or brave enough to take an advanced class with Martha Graham. Even a master class was too much, especially with the way the summer class had ended, with me doing a complicated series of solo movements, then struggling to hide when she said, “You there, the one who can’t dance.”

The memory was too strong not to protest, but the young woman was adamant, “You’re signed up for the advanced class. See you at 5:30. Leave your check on the desk before you go.” With that, she stretched her way to a nearby room and disappeared behind the closing door. I stood, incredulous, stupidly flattered that she or someone thought me a good enough dancer to be in the advanced class, and at the same time, terrified that I’d be thrown out as a gate crasher, a so-called dancer with the arrogant temerity to think she could breathe the same air as Martha Graham, the most mesmerizing dancer and teacher I’d ever encountered.

At 5:00, unable to control my anxiety, I changed into my black tights and leotards and headed for a practice room where I could warm up. My balance was precarious; my muscles almost too tight to move. Turns ended in falls. Every sequence I’d learned had disappeared from muscle memory, and even the simplest technique seemed beyond my shrinking capacity. Each movement of the minute hand on the clock increased my tension. When fifteen minutes had passed and it was time to go to the classroom, I ran into the bathroom, threw up, then headed for a place at the back of the dance studio where all the women were inches taller than I, with sleek bodies. I felt short, insignificant, and pudgy.

Martha entered in a flowing silk dress, followed by two assistants who demonstrated the series of movements with which we were to begin the class. I couldn’t remember one sequence and idiotically asked the woman behind me for clarification. She hissed, “SHHHH!” I was on my own, alone, scared, and unable to breathe. Suddenly it was my turn. I felt Martha’s energy, her passion, her power, her eyes on me. There was no time to think or feel, only the time to move. I thrust myself into the space and danced, fighting for my place, my self, my need to be who I wanted to be. I finished the sequence and forced myself to turn, to face Martha. “Good,” she said. “Next!”

Nancy King s most recent books are three novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light*, The Stones Speak*, and a nonfiction book, Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories. You can read excerpts of her books, as well as order them, on her website www.nancykingstories.com.

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