Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
From the 1920s to the 1970s, Martha Graham was a revolutionary dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor who used her innovative ideas to change the art of dance.
Awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania in 1894, Martha Graham developed into arguably the most influential dancer and choreographer of the 20th Century. After she founded a world-renowned school of dance in Manhattan, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 1991.
Martha Graham, born May 11, 1894, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, distinguished herself as the Keystone State’s most influential individual in dance and choreography. She spent the first 14 years of her life living in the Pittsburgh suburbs before moving with her family to Santa Barbara, California, in 1908. Influenced tremendously by her father, a doctor who specialized in human psychology and nervous disorders, the young, athletic Graham discovered her passion in life.
Dr. Graham’s ability to diagnose through physical movement and his interest in the particular way people moved their bodies intrigued his daughter. Dr. Graham’s slogan, “Movement never lies,” unknowingly propelled his impressionable daughter into becoming one of the world’s most prominent dance innovators.
After completing her secondary schooling in California, Graham enrolled in a school for the dramatic arts following an inspiring ballet performance by Ruth St. Denis at a Los Angeles opera house. Martha left that experience in complete awe, and in 1916 began studying at the recently formed Denishawn School, founded by her idol, St. Denis, to teach American and world dance techniques. Throughout the next ten years, Graham honed her incredible skills and passion.
In 1926, Martha relocated back to the east coast and founded the now world-renowned Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in midtown Manhattan. Applying her love of movement and her father’s dictum, Graham forever altered the world of dance and choreography. She pioneered the use of emotion and psychology as foundations of dance and movement.
Martha Graham spent 70 years of her life perfecting and teaching her passion. She has been mentioned in the same breath as Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright as a pivotal influence in 20th-century art. Time Magazine, in 1998, named Martha Graham the “Dancer of the Century.” Graham’s presidential honors include dancing at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt at the request of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1976, President Ford presented Martha with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making her the first dancer and choreographer to receive this award. In doing so, President Ford labeled Graham a “national treasure.” In 1985, President Reagan made her one of the first recipients of the United States’ National Medal of Arts.
At age 76, Graham retired from dancing, but continued teaching and choreographing dances until the age of 90. Today, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance continues its success by teaching aspiring talents Graham’s techniques. It is the longest continuously operating school of dance in America.
Martha Graham died April 1, 1991, in New York City. Graham wrote her autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography (1991), as an invitation to readers to explore her past, as well as to provide vivid photographs of her work.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday Books, 1991.
Modern Dance Forms in Relation to the Other Modern Arts. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company Publishers, 1987.
Martha Graham: Portrait of the Lady as an Artist. New York: Knopf, 1966.