This content originally appeared in Resonate by Nancy Duarte.
Martha Graham is recognized as a great innovator in dance, but she was an impressive communicator as well. She exemplifies characteristics that must be cultivated and nourished by any person who wants to become a great presenter. She made herself stand out by challenging the conventions of society. She persevered, even when confronted with obstacles that seemed overwhelming. She struggled with and conquered her fears. She respected her audiences, and established deep connections with them. And she never shied away from expressing her most profound feelings.
Graham spent her life challenging what dance is and what a dancer can do. She looked upon dance as an exploration, a celebration of life, and a religious calling that required absolute devotion.
She succeeded in the world of dance against all odds. A career in dancing was frowned upon in the environment where she grew up.
By the time she began to seriously study dance, she was thought to be too old, too short, too heavy, and too homely for anyone in the profession to take her seriously.
“They thought I was good enough to be a teacher, but not a dancer,” she recalled. But she was determined and pursued dance with the intensity that was characteristic of everything she did in her life. Dance was her reason for living. Willing to risk everything, driven by a burning passion, she dedicated herself absolutely to her art. “I did not choose to be a dancer,” she often said. “I was chosen.”
In Graham’s view, classical ballet was decadent and anti-democratic. After all, it was originally a spectacle created for royal European courts. With its three hundred year tradition, it was a highly regimented form, graceful and precise, but not suited for freedom of expression.
Graham was prepared to abandon this tradition. In its place, she created a revolutionary new language of movement, a way of dancing that could express the joys, passions, and sorrows that are part of the human experience. She replaced traditional ballet’s soaring, graceful leaps with stark, angular movements, blunt gestures, and harsh facial expressions. Her goal was to express the primordial moods and feelings of humanity with dances intended to both challenge and disturb the audience. 16
Graham’s revolutionary approach to dance was not well received by many—after all, it did not center on traditional beauty and romance. She was frequently ridiculed and made the butt of antagonistic jokes. Women’s suffrage had only recently arrived (in 1920), and the rise of the “new woman” who could vote and pursue a career still made many people uncomfortable. A high-kicking, provocatively clad bevy of chorus girls was acceptable, but a dance company ran by a woman whose works were a comment on war, poverty, and intolerance seemed unnatural and aroused suspicion.
She was protesting. Stark. And American. Many labeled her ugly, others called her revolutionary. But Graham was resolute in her desire to communicate how she felt.
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.
– Martha Graham