Mindfulness Mondays 63: Martha Graham, Communicating From the Heart
November 22, 2010 by Dr. Lam
I am on a plane ride back from St. Louis where I lecture a couple times a year. In my quest for ongoing improvement in my ability to communicate, I am a voracious reader of books that help me elevate my art. The books that have had the most profound influence on me include Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen and Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology. I am currently finishing Duarte’s new book, Resonate, that focuses more on the art of storytelling than on the rigors of slide creation, which was the focus of her first book.
A story that captivated me in her book recounted the life of Martha Graham, the iconoloclastic dancer who ushered in a new way of seeing and performing dance. Against all odds, she became a dancer: she was told she was too old, too heavy, too ugly, and too short. She said, “They thought I was good enough to be a teacher, but not a dancer.” Dance was her reason for living, Duarte explains. Driven by her burning desire for her art, she declared, “I did not choose to be a dancer. I was chosen.”
Her stark, blunt, gestural dance stood antithetical to traditional romantic, flowing movements of European dance that dominated until that time. Beating down the stereotypical chorus girl prototype, Graham was the brave, new woman who owned her own company and created a new expression. In 1930, she debuted her haunting solo dance called Lamentation. One of her first performances was in Brooklyn. Immediately after the performance a woman came up to her and with tears thanked her for how much her dance meant to her. Graham later found out that this woman had recently witnessed the death of her 9-year-old son who was struck by a truck in front of her and who had the incapacity to cry until that performance that gave her the vehicle and dignity to weep. Graham insisted that if her dance could touch one person in the audience that it would be worth it. She wanted her dances to be felt rather than understood.
I think her story is truly inspirational whether you love or hate modern dance. It is a story of a person who passionately followed her heart against all tormenters and naysayers. She pursued her art and wanted that art to speak to whoever was willing to listen and be receptive to it. I think we all can learn a valuable lesson when we hear the stifling looks of others who believe we are not worthy to pursue what we want in life because we do not meet whatever criterion or standard that the public has set for us. We can all follow our heart more than our minds and work to achieve greatness through our capacity to express ourselves and hopefully that expression will touch at least one other life.