Fair use photo from flickr.com

Martha Graham: Weird is Okay


By Annalise Beeson | Elementary Education Major

22-year-old, Martha Graham started her first dance class at Denishawn School of Dance in Los Angeles, California. “You’re too old. You’re too short. You’re too heavy,” echoed in her head as she stayed at the dance studio late into the night working on her pirouettes, arabesques, and pas de chats. Her teacher, Ted Shawn, noticed Graham’s hard work and wrote Xochitl, a ballet specifically for her to be the lead, which caused her career to take off (biography).

As she began her solo career, Graham changed from the smooth and beautiful movements normally associated with ballet to rigid, harsh, and ugly movements to portray emotions she believed could not be expressed in any other form. Famously quoted Graham said, “The body says what words cannot” and also is known for her dance technique, “contraction and release”. Audiences, other dancers, and critics all objected this form of dance. Graham did not stop this method of movement, however, because she hoped it would help at least one audience member as it helped her move past her own grief caused by alcoholism, divorce, and depression (Phillips). All of these factors put together challenge the standard definition of success especially in the dance world, which Graham went on to change forever. Dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, was proof of Gladwell’s Outliers Theories about special opportunities and creative intelligence.

Dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, was proof of Gladwell’s Outliers Theories about special opportunities and creative intelligence.

Martha Graham grew up in a typical home with her two parents and two younger sisters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a doctor, her father believed the body had “inner senses” that could only come out through physical movement, which he used to treat anxiety and nervous disorders. Her parents were very supportive of all their daughters and in 1908, the family moved from Pennsylvania to Santa Barbara, California, because one of their younger daughters had chronic asthma. Graham grew up perfecting a number of skills and was known for her determination. She edited her high school’s magazine, played on the basketball team, performed in theater, was a member of student council, and also was a seamstress on the side (Bova).

California was where Graham begged her parents to let her attend a ballet performance by Ruth St. Denis in Los Angeles. They agreed and even bought Graham a new dress to see the ballet. After the performance she wanted nothing more than to dance with Ruth St. Denis at her school, Denishawn School of Dance, but her parents refused due to their strong Presbyterian faith. Instead of attending dance school like she wanted, she went to an Expression school where she did theater and some dance on the side. A year after her father died, Graham enrolled in the Denishawn School of Dance.

Once at Denishawn School, Graham impressed her teacher, Ted Shawn, and was cast as the lead in one of his ballets, Serenata Morisca, which was applauded and loved by critics and dance lovers all other the world (Encylopedia of World Biography). This is what eventually shot Graham’s dance career off and made her a famous name in the dance world.

A few special opportunities came from Martha Graham’s family background. She became interested and had a positive view on physical movements at an early age due to her father studying and using them to heal others. Growing up the oldest of three girls made her determined, which, along with hard work, is what she used to take her dance career to the next level.

Everyone has talents and some opportunities, but do special opportunities really make a huge difference in someone’s life? The difference between a mailman and a movie star? What about the difference between the salaries of teachers and NFL players? For example, children born in September and October are assumed to have a bit of an advantage in kindergarten and lower elementary grades versus children born at the end of the cut-off, May and June, making some students 20% older than other students. Many people suspect the advantage goes away eventually and that holding back children another year doesn’t do any good. A study done by two economists, Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey, however, found that the advantage just by being those few months older does not go away in a few years and can actually stay with the student through college. The oldest children in a 4th grade test were found to score four to twelve percentile points higher than children born in the later months. Students with later birthdays were 11.6% less represented than students with earlier birthdays even in college 10+ years later. Why does this advantage not level off? It is because teachers have to pick students to be put into gifted programs and to get more educational attention in the early elementary years. Naturally, teachers are going to pick the more gifted and advanced students, which usually ends up being the ones who were born earlier because maturity is mistaken for talent and advanced learning capabilities. Because of this, those same students are picked every year and given more opportunities and attention than the others, making their educational progress more evident and prominent (Bedard, Dhuey).

Special opportunities may seem harmless at the forefront, but as you can see, those advantages don’t level out, making it possible for one small opportunity to have big lasting effects. Even author Tim Bascom admitted in a class interview that part of his success in writing came from luck and special opportunities. He entered a writing contest he thought he was under- qualified for and by pure luck was chosen to be the winner, which opened doors to work with his current publisher.

Martha Graham and her family may have had a small opportunity to move to California from Pittsburgh, but that led to the opportunity to see Ruth St. Denis, who eventually became her dance teacher, enabling Graham to have more opportunities and advances over other dancers and students. All of those small opportunities led to the big opportunity of touring and being a lead in the ballet that made Martha Graham famous and not just another girl from Pennsylvania.

Martha Graham started her own dance company in 1926. The focus was on the style of dance more than the costumes, makeup, and extravagant movements that most dance companies used plentifully. The first dances she wrote were performed with minimal costumes and lights; the movements, hair, and faces were all stiff. The music she decided to use was composed just for the dance instead of writing the dance to the music like usual. Graham had been known for having visions that inspired her style of choreographing. This style of movement was not used before in Western dance and received poor critiques from other dancers, critics, and audiences (Terry).

According to Google, “Creative intelligence is the ability to go beyond the existing to create novel and interesting ideas”. It is the ability to think outside the box, to believe in it fully, and try something new in order to express something for yourself or others. Due to Graham’s special opportunities she had in her past, she was able to use creative intelligence to express herself in a way others could not. Once she was able to do that, she got negative feedback and was told she shouldn’t do that anymore.

According to a study done by Liam Hudson, IQ and standardized tests are not the best way to identify intelligence, especially with children in schools. Colleges are noticing a problem with admissions and entrance testing due to too much focus being put on IQ and other test scores rather than creativity and being a well-rounded individual. According to a TED Talk by Ken Robinson, we are literally “educating people out of their creative capacities”. How often do we tell someone who wants to be a musician, artist, actor, or pursue another creative career that they won’t be good enough to make it or even if they are good enough, they still won’t because that career isn’t realistic? We are telling students, and children especially, that mistakes are the worst thing they can make. That is why so many people may not want to pursue a creative career path — just because they are afraid they won’t make it, disregarding the fact that it fulfills them or makes them feel fully alive. If we could start telling students it is alright to try something they love and go at it whole heartedly, and it is okay to fail, then what a difference that would make.

Martha Graham was married to Erick Hawkins for six years. Even several years after her divorce, Graham admitted to doing things hoping for his return and resorting to alcohol when it was hard to wait. Her father drank increasingly as she grew up, influencing her to reach for the substance to subside difficult moments in her own life. Clytemnestra, written in 1958 by Graham, was inspired by her alcohol use and the dance performance even had a “drunk scene” as one of the acts (Phillips).

Even those negative and difficult experiences in her life did not stop her from turning them into inspiration for dances and to keep expressing herself in a healthy manner. When Graham first started doing this style of dance, as I said before, it was called “ugly, stark, and obscure”. However, eventually this style of dance was embraced by Western dance culture and Martha Graham became known as the dancer who started the whole movement. What made this style of dance go from being brushed aside and called negative names to a style that is now famous? According to the author of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, it could be due to a tipping point. “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” (Gladwell 12). The reason it spreads depends on the people who hear of the epidemic, the stickiness factor, and the context of the epidemic. In Outliers, Gladwell also said on page 151, “If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” Graham did that by not giving up on herself and her creative intelligence, which led to her style of dance having a tipping point because now the style is taught by dance companies and studios all over the world (biography).

Graham was told at the beginning of her life to not try to pursue dance as a career. When she did and became successful, she was told not to be creative within dancing. Luckily she didn’t listen to the criticism of others and expressed herself in a way she felt like she needed to, which eventually would go on to change the way dance was done and perceived in the Western world.

Martha Graham was acknowledged for her achievements in not only the dance world but also reaching beyond stereotypes and providing a creative environment that was desperately needed during her lifetime. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford gave Graham the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, which made her the first dancer and choreographer to receive the award. She was the first modern dancer to dance in the White House and was named the “Dancer of the Century” by TIME Magazine in 1998 (Bova). She not only changed the dance world but also the nation by embracing how the United States was changing and inspired Americans to be okay with “weird” and “different”. Success comes in all ways and Martha Graham taught us that if it is different or weird, that is okay.

Works Cited:

Bedard, Kelly, Dhuey, Elizabeth. “The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects”. Quarterly Journal of Economics 121. No. 4 (2006): 1437–1472. Web.

Bova, Elyse. “Martha Graham: A Brief History.” Blogspot. 06 May 2009. Web. 28 April 2016.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Advameg, Inc. 2016. Web. 13 April 2016.

“Genetic and Environmental Factors in Human Ability.” The British Medical Journal. 2.5469. (1965): 1053–1054. Web. 08 March 2016.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.

— -, Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Print.

“Martha Graham Biography”. Biography. A & E Television Networks, N/A. Web. 05 March 2016.

Phillips, Victoria. “Martha Graham’s Gilded Cage: “Blood Memory- an autobiography”. Dance Research. Journal 45.2 (2013): 63–84. Web. 05 March 2016.

Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Ted. Febraury 2006. Web. 24 April 2016.

“Tim Bascom.” Personal interview. 26 Feb. 2016.

Terry, Walter. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2016. Web. 13 April 2016.

Photo by Conrad Engstrom.


Annalise Beeson, a freshman from Orange City, Iowa, dreams of one day being a preschool teacher. Beeson likes quoting Parks and Recreation, walking her Shih-Tzu puppy and eating chocolate-chip pancakes.


I have learned that hugs are sometimes better shared without words.

I learned you can make any day “Flannel Friday”, especially in Minnesota.

Even people who wouldn’t call themselves “writers” can write.

You can define success in pretty much anyway you want. You got a C on a test you studied really hard for? Nice. You got the courage to speak up in class? Job well done. If you worked hard and are proud of the effort you put into it, it is success.

I have learned that even general education classes can be fun.

From Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I learned that epidemics and trends don’t always have an explanation. Sometimes they just happen and you need to accept that.

I learned I really like Capri-Sun juice pouches.

I have learned that if I don’t have coffee before my 9 am I will be drowsy.

Embrace where you’re from. Even if it is some small town in Iowa that always smells like cow manure and doesn’t have a Target within 50 miles.

My high school didn’t teach me how to use technology at all.