Dancing With Martha

Yesterday, during a long, soul-searching telephone visit with  my dear friend, Kendall, she mentioned Martha Graham as a strong proponent of restlessness in the artist’s journey. This reminded me of my one encounter with Miss Graham, when my restlessness brought me to New York City where I lived for several months in a studio apartment with my two-year-old daughter, Moira. Today, I want to go back to that earlier time, when my youthful self was innocent of dance as a mission. I simply was a dancer, through and through, passionately wanting to share myself, body and soul, through performing. I hadn’t yet seen myself as savior, responsible for teaching others the truth as I saw it. That would come later, when Airth became a method for teaching spiritual unity through dance.  No… In 1967, with a strong foundation in Ballet,  but  having  received permission through reading Isadora Duncan’s MY LIFE, I was dancing myself: My body was gladly discovering freedom through movement; my emotions were granted expression; dancing was love released and bliss was in sight. It might have helped that flower children were everywhere. My India print dresses and blouses, my bell-bottomed jeans and oversize naval sea cadet coat were in style, at least among the youthful rebels of Manhattan. I soon discovered that the world inhabited by the grande dame of the modern dance was a whole other story.

My mother’s old school friend, Nancy Hamilton, was a very close friend of Katherine Cornell, the actress, and Miss Cornell was good friends with Martha Graham. An interview was arranged, and it was suggested that I take some classes at Miss Graham’s school before I went.  Well, truth to tell, I wasn’t really a fan of the lady. I had seen her company perform and not been much moved, had even been somewhat embarrassed by the dramatic and limited gestures of the elderly star. So, just to be sure she knew where I was coming from, I sent her an album of photographs taken during a recent performance.

Some weeks later, I braved the doorman of her swanky  building, rode the elevator upward to her floor, and was let in to the holy of holies by the priestess, herself.  She was tiny, and watching her hang the heavy wool coat among her furs was agony. And the flimsy cotton of my homemade dress did not compare with the silk lounging pajamas that she wore like a costume. I had noticed a ballet barre attached to the wall, and I imagined her warming up for our interview. Her bony and aged face seemed made up for a performance. Against the thick white foundation,  the carefully drawn red lips were startling. The long black lashes made shadows on her wrinkled cheeks. She gestured toward a flawless cream-colored sofa and I gingerly sat as she draped herself in the throne across from me. Her expression was steely. Even so, I was hardly prepared for an attack. In her  long-fingered hands  she held my book of photographs – opened to a familiar image which until that moment had pleased me. Now I  listened to her berate me as yet another Duncan  impersonator. And who needs another dancer letting everything hang out? My lack of discipline was evident from how few classes I had attended at her school, and by my obvious reluctance to grasp her technique. Why, in the name of heaven, was I there, and what did I think Martha Graham could do for me? What make me think I could be a dancer? My eyes had been held by the petrifying glare of her black-fringed orbs, but there was no holding the tears that had gathered as she spoke.

The dam broke suddenly, and the watery flow was accompanied by words: “Miss Graham, I dance because I have to dance. I live to dance. And though my dancing may not seem as disciplined as yours, I have moved audiences, and I truly believe that I can inspire others by being honest through my art.” The lady was listening now, but she had also managed to produce a box of kleenex and a bottle of sherry.  If the flow was happening, she could make it a little more tolerable. I told her about my child, and how difficult it was to find babysitters each time I went to class. (I had taken Moira with me several times.) Then I told her that nothing would stop me from sharing my love for dancing with the world, and here she spoke the words which would return to me frequently over the course of my dancing life. “Miss Anderson, perhaps you should be an evangelist instead of a dancer.” My reply: “Miss Graham, perhaps I’ll be both.”

Today, knowing more than I did in my youth, I find my heart softening toward the woman, Martha Graham. She would have been close to my present age, had recently lost a younger lover, and was facing a waning career as a dancer. I think of Errand Into The Maze and Diversion Of Angels, among other amazing creations, and I can’t help wondering if she was the one who was dancer and evangelist in one – long before I made my bold reply to her suggestion.

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2 Responses to “Dancing With Martha”

  1. Kendall Says:

    What a wonderful story. Thanks for telling it, Leif, and for adding that final paragraph. If she was an evangelist, what was she evangelizing for? And you? I remember the Dalai Lama addressing a crowd in South Africa. He said, “I am a simple monk, and I live by my vows. By my vows, I know who I am. What are your vows?” It’s useful for me now and then to ask myself that question again.

  2. leiflife Says:

    Dearest Kendall, I take your comment as an affectionate challenge, probably worthy of a whole blog. One might have to start with a definition of evangelism, which in my interior dictionary would be quite different from Webster’s. I guess I was thinking of someone who conveys a universal message that could enlighten others. Martha’s “ballets” were often based on mythology, but she also danced Emily Dickenson’s “Letter To The World”. She was probably in the same boat as Joseph Campbell, who would laugh at the idea himself as evangelist. So how about teacher? I guess each teacher/evangelist conveys what they personally believe in, and some beliefs are more inclusive than others. It sounds as if the Dalai Lama conveys by example – living his vows openly for others to emulate or learn from. I like the idea of remembering my vows – even rethinking my vows. Thank you for asking the question – knowing my need. Love, Leif

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