Some Sage Advice from Martha Graham

Martha Graham

And then there were four. Well there’s always only four of us on Tuesdays- the beginner level Martha Graham class I have every Tuesday is capped at just four students, all of whom are part of the pre-professional training program at the Paris Marais Dance School. In contrast, most of the other introductory Martha Graham classes taught at the school are also open to the public.

If being only one of four students in a dance class isn’t intimidating enough, try taking it with Maggie Boogaart, a six-foot-tall redhead with hair that matches her fiery personality known for whipping her students into shape and pushing dancers past where they once thought their limits were. Boogaart trained at the Martha Graham School, was a student of Pearl Lang herself, and now, alongside her husband, directs the conservatory program I am in for the semester.

But for an hour and a half every Tuesday, she is my Graham teacher, and potentially one of the toughest, most demanding teachers I’ve ever had. After fussing about technical mistakes and a lack of commitment and energy, Maggie ended our class with a quote from Martha Graham herself:

“There is a vitality,
a life force,
a quickening
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

And If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine
how good it is
nor how valuable it is
nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Keep the channel open…
No artist is pleased…

There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes ‘us’ MORE alive than the others.”

Graham supposedly said these words to Agnes de Mille, another famous choreographer who at the time, was questioning the value of her choreography after receiving some unexpected comments from critics. Even though the advice was meant for a woman struggling with her own choreography, this quote summarizes my study abroad journey up to this point well, and I hope I will be able to live Graham’s advice going forward.

The semester before I came to Paris was hellish. The application process to enter this program was a long and complicated one, but the hardest thing was the self-doubt that came with all the paperwork. Hours in the studio rehearsing the variation that I recorded and sent to the school were followed by even more hours of certainty that I wouldn’t get in, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t in shape enough, that I wasn’t flexible enough…I could go on, but I bet you get the point.

But the self-doubt didn’t end with my acceptance email, which I was ecstatic to open by the way. Should I have taken more dance classes over the summer to prepare? What if I fall behind the other students? What if I’m the worst in all of my classes?

And then on through the first few weeks of the program: Am I getting better fast enough? Do my teachers think I have potential? Am I better than her? Am I worse? Am I even good?

But if we listen to Graham, it’s not up to us to decide “how good” we are or “how [we] compare” with others; apparently, we don’t even have to believe in ourselves- what a relief for those of us with a lack of self-confidence!

All jokes aside, what Graham said is true. There’s no sense in comparing ourselves to others because at the end of the day, even though someone else might be able to do more pirouettes, or consistently get better grades on essays, or whatever else it is that we succeed and struggle in, no one will be able to tell your story better than you can.

You can’t get dejected because you think you should be better at something than you are or because someone is better than you; at the end of the day, life (and art) is not just about being “good,” it’s about sharing something intimate and real and raw about yourself that only you have and can share. Sometimes it’s not about speaking the truth, it’s about speaking your truth.

The last paragraph of Graham’s quote seems pretty gloomy, but it’s in this same train of thought. It’s important to differentiate between self-acceptance and the realization that there is enormous value in what only you can give to the world and settling. Even though you should find the empowerment in Graham’s message and accept yourself in the present, you should always keep pushing, working harder, and getting better.

The dissatisfaction Graham talks about comes with never being “done.” Though you might achieve the goals you set, you should always have something else to work towards next. There’s always something that can be done more, or faster, or better. There’s always more you can learn. There should always be something that you haven’t achieved yet, that you are not satisfied with.