Dance Magazine

Graham Technique

Graham Technique

Marnie Thomas

Demonstrating a class for Martha Graham was always unpredictable. One day in 1959, in the hot, airless gym at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College, 112 beginning students were wilting from the humidity and from Martha’s relentless push for a commanding presence. Dissatisfied with the deep pli4 contraction series, she admonished, “No! Watch Marnie. It should be done like this.”

As I began, her ironlike grip encircled me, interrupting the usual flow. Pressing me into release in the opposite direction, she suspended the movement impulse, changed the counts–and a brand new exercise emerged.

“You see!” she exclaimed, triumphant, as if it had always been so. In that instant a piece of the technique was reinvented, and a group of melted minds and bodies were jolted into making a flesh challenge.

How could a radical rule-breaker like Martha Graham, who delighted in redefining herself in the immediacy of each moment, generate the disciplined system of training known as Graham Technique? Two factors keep interweaving across the fabric of her creative career: her constant focus on exploring human physicality to express human concerns, and her spontaneous embrace of change.

HISTORY It was between the two world wars, in an America on the verge of the Great Depression, that Graham began her quest. Born out of a rebellion against the decorative aspects of Euro-ballet, and fueled by her thirst for self-expression, Graham’s individual language began to emerge. Her early movement was raw, strident, and filled with flexed feet, sudden falls, and percussive curling of the torso. All this was in sync with her revolutionary impulses and embodied in her all-female company of that period, familiarly called the “thunder thighs.”

Graham’s vocabulary was influenced by each new decade of the 20th century. The spare, angular attack that defined her work in the 1920s and 1930s broadened into a more expansive and lyric stroke in the 1940s with the arrival of men in her life and her choreography. Psychological and sexual references added complexity to the training in the 1950s and 1960s. During the final years, when her own mobility became limited, the new generation of athletic dancers brought the vocabulary into daring technical extremes.


Here is what some other former Graham dancers say:

“The Graham Technique resonates with primal instinct. You are not only moving from your body’s core, but also from the very core of who you are.”

–Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company

“When I took my first Graham class, it felt as though someone had taken the lid off a pot of boiling water. I felt a release that was both emotional and existential. The Graham Technique gave a voice to an inner world that I had no idea even existed.”

–Kenneth Topping, faculty of the Martha Graham School

“With laser-beam clarity, Graham isolated and caught the passion of the contraction (which is an amplification of an involuntary physical reaction to a sob or laugh), a movement that utilizes the eenter of the torso. It is charged with dramatic and poetic imagery that makes it urgent and moving, as well as beautiful.”

–Pearl Lang, choreographer, faculty of the Martha Graham School


* The contraction is essentially an exhale that curls the pelvis under and allows the chest to hollow inward. The body shapes itself as if embracing an enormous bubble, while allowing the audience to sense the completion of the circle. There are two different contraction dynamics. In the more lyric version, the head lowers following the rounded shape in a smooth execution of the exhale, rather like a suspended sigh. In the more extreme contraction, the head is thrown upward in percussive opposition to the rounded shape, as though in a guffaw of laughter or a scream of pain. The release is a straightening of the spine, returning to the elongated stance of an inhale of breath.

* The spiral is a circling successive twist that wraps the torso into a strong suspension around the upright spine. Like a rope in which the fibers are entwined, the spiral adds strength in its winding motion.

* The falls are a surrender to gravity. The classic Graham fall begins by sinking into the floor as if fainting, coiling onto the hip and catching the energy into a contracted and spiraled curl at the end to begin the rise to standing.

* The off-balance tilts defy gravity. Starting from a wide second position, they create a windmill sensation by tipping dangerously to the side, ready to fall. The pitch arabesque is a throw of the torso dipping forward over the standing leg.

* Oppositional pull is created by stretching in different directions while the energy radiates outward from the spine.

* Graham’s use of parallel and turnout stems from her sense of the body opening and dosing in exploration of all possibilities. Drawing the energy into oneself and sending it outward is vital to the concept of breath that inspired her technique.


“It is in the retum to the classroom that every artist has the opportunity to be reborn.”–Martha Graham See


Marnie Thomas, professor emerita at UC Berkeley, was the director of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance from 2003 to 2006.

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