Teacher's Wisdom: Former Martha Graham Dancer Marni Thomas, Co-Founder of the Dance Department at the University of California at Berkeley, Spoke to Writer Ann Murphy at the University's Dance Studios

By Thomas, Marni | Dance Magazine, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Teacher's Wisdom: Former Martha Graham Dancer Marni Thomas, Co-Founder of the Dance Department at the University of California at Berkeley, Spoke to Writer Ann Murphy at the University's Dance Studios


Thomas, Marni, Dance Magazine


IS THERE A PARTICULAR BODY TYPE OR KIND OF DANCER REST SUITED TO GRAHAM WORK? NO, I don't think so. Martha really felt every spiral had to be experienced by how far that particular body could turn. Every contraction had to do with the length of your body compared to the length of your thigh, or how stretched your spine was. So, for her, the contraction was not one shape that looked like a C. It was: This person's body goes this way; this person's body twists that far; this person's body tilts to this degree. A spiral is important but only if it looks like you are constantly turning, not like you've squished yourself to the edge. The same thing is true for the contraction, which people seem to think is a troll all hunched up. It's not. It's based on mobility.

DO MEN STILL COMPLAIN ABOUT THE FLOOR WORK? Definitely, but so do women. Everyone complains about the floor! One reason is that when you begin Graham after the body is adult, it's hard to feel your flexibility. Another reason is that certain other techniques use the body in a way that makes the muscularly-engaged Graham world feel constricting. Also, there's a sense that it is done by rote. People think mistakenly that "it" is important rather than "I'm important because I know how to use my body in these ways." The critical element in teaching the technique is allowing each person to come to terms with her own limitations, to challenge her, but to also fill her with confidence about how she can move with strength and flexibility.

CAN YOU TELL ME HOW YOU TEACH A GRAHAM CONTRACTION? For Martha, a contraction is based on human reactions--a scream, a laugh, a punch in the middle of the stomach. It came from the idea of exhaling and inhaling, then transferring the breath from the lung to the pelvis. The first thing you teach with a contraction is a very natural exhale, showing that the body slightly curves. Then you use the muscles to create that round shape rather than let the body just be lax. That's her lyric contraction. The percussive contraction is based on the percussive exhalation. The image is of being hit in the pit of the stomach, or screaming in pain, or with laughter. Laughing is something people seem to forget with Graham. The extreme pressure makes the head fly back to let air out.

WHAT ROLE DO THE ARMS PLAY? The arms are like the echo from the center. In old comic books you would see the effects of a character's shout. There would be lines coining out from all around the head and the mouth that then showed you the shout. Similarly, in a Graham contraction the arms fling out from the body to make the "shout" front the core visible. The legs often do the same. They never lead. Almost always in Graham the torso leads while the arms and legs and head become extensions of what the spine is telling you not the face. …

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