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Dancers are crazy, says Denise Vale, senior artistic associate and rehearsal director of

the Martha Graham Dance Company. The companys principal dancer from 1985-95 was guestteaching a Graham Technique course at UNC Charlotte January 19 to 30 dancers students and
alumni alike when she made the observation.
I was among those alumni dancers and was reminded that we really are some of the
oddest people; we sit on each other to stretch, train for hours to get one second of movement
perfect, and spend our free time rolling on tennis balls. We do this because our passion demands
perfection.
Along with 15 other passionate UNC Charlotte dance students and alumni, I performed
Grahams Steps in the Street last Tuesday at the Knight Theater. Since August weve been
coached by regisseur, UNC Charlotte professor and past Graham Company member Kim Jones,
and on January 20 we became one of the few student groups to perform Steps on the same bill
as the Martha Graham Dance Company. This gave us the opportunity to spend two days with
some crazy, passionate, and very talented dancers, and absorb all we could.
My training for this performance began in the studio my freshman year of college. I
respected the technique immediately, but to take a class from Vale, who trained directly under
Graham, and to perform on stage with the Company, brought the fundamentals to life and gave
the painful floor-work meaning. The experience imbued in me the responsibility as an artist
and dancer to accurately portray the history and technique behind the Martha Graham
repertoire. I know we all felt blessed to be there performing a dance first choreographed in 1936.
Graham Changed Dance Forever

Considered the mother of modern dance, Graham created an entire technique that
removed the ethereal grace behind pointe shoes, tutus, and delicate lines; her repertoire contained
the raw truth about the world, covering historical events such as the Great Depression, the
Spanish Civil War and World War II. In the 1930s, while entertainers such as Busby Berkeley
created flashy dances with sexy, long-legged women wearing gold coins and singing Were in
the money, Graham used dance not as an escape from the real world, but as a way for people to
cope with their experiences.
Steps in the Street opens in silent walks. We walk alone, but as a group, silently
across the dimly lit stage, our arms wrapped around our bodies, our gaze to the floor and our feet
pushing through it as we walk backwards. We move through darkness, creating a scene where
women attempt to survive hunger, poverty and solitude. The music, by Wallingford Riegger,
interrupts the silence with syncopated rhythms and drums that create a loud, domineering score
that only a group of dancers could fill.
We also form whats called a bread line. The soloist hinges in grief to the ground as we
form a line and march from upstage left to downstage right. Some dancers reach up from their
backs, some diagonally down from their chests, and some break the arm at the elbow to bend
behind the head; the angular and uncomfortable shapes represent the hunger caused by war and
depression. As Vale says in the master class, its not about the foot, its about what the foot is
trying to communicate.
The entire program Tuesday night showed the raw power and passion behind the Graham
technique, exploring what it means to be human. Diversion of Angels (1948) revealed the
phases of love; Lamentation Variations, a conception of Artistic Director Janet Eilber that she

based on the 1930s piece, Lamentations, dealt with inner turmoil physically and beautifully.
Errand into the Maze (1947) took the audience through the hearts darkest places to overcome
what the program notes called the Creature of Fear. Finally, there was Echo, a more
contemporary work (2014) that alluded to the myth of Echo and Narcissus, in which every
gesture, every look and every contraction showed the power of the human body to make
unnatural and difficult movement appear organic.
Graham's technique exists in the contraction and release of the pelvis, spirals of the back,
and shifts of weight. Behind the power and strength is breath and life, and it is invested in
passion and hunger. As Vale tells us, "it is inorganically organic." She means the movement may
be unnatural to the body, but with time and work, the dancer can trust their body to move
naturally and emotionally through the movement.
Managing the Fear
But there is still fear after finding this trust. Ben Shultz, who danced the role of the
Creature of Fear in Errand into the Maze Tuesday night, admitted that he still gets terrified
rising and falling from the ground, and balancing on one leg while holding a staff behind his
neck with both arms; he can only accept that he improves with each show and learns to manage
the fear.
After a rough tech rehearsal the day of the show, we too realized that we needed to learn
to manage these fears. To manage mine, I went to a park across the street from the Knight
Theater where I found a gold placard, fashioned to look like a scroll, sitting against a flower bed;
it looked extremely out of place. When I looked closer, though, I noticed that it was a poem

called Dreaming about Dancing a song about the importance of cherishing every moment
on that stage. I dont know why it was there, but Im glad it was.
When we got into the studio to warm-up, I was trying to stay calm and trust that I knew
the dance when one of the members of the Graham Company came in wearing a full reindeer
suit, proving once again that Vale was right; I wondered what other crazy things shes seen in
her years with the company. Later, a principal dancer, Tadej Brdnik, came into our dressing room
and reminded us not to let the pressure ruin our night, but to remember that every movement is
precious. Most importantly, he reminded us, we earned the right to perform on that stage.
And when it came time to perform, we killed it. I have never enjoyed being on stage so
much; never been calmer, never thought less about the audience, and never felt so connected to a
group. Backstage, some of the Graham Company watched us, talked to us, and silently cheered
us on. I only ever dreamt my peers and I would be on stage while the Graham Company
watched.
Tuesday night, I was reminded why it takes a pretty crazy person to train the way dancers
train, to contort their bodies into the shapes dancers make, and to fight through injuries and pain
-- it's to communicate something essential and passionate about life. Graham once said, I did
not want to be a tree, a flower or a wave. In a dancer's body, we as audience must see ourselves,
not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures
from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.
That philosophy still infuses the Graham legacy. The raw humanity she danced and spoke
of transcends time and remains relevant over a century after her birth and almost 23 years after
her death. Throughout my training, my peers and I have joked when a door randomly closes or

the vents make a noise that its the ghost of Martha Graham come to watch us. Were kidding,
but we all know we have a standard to uphold. And for one amazing night, we even become a
part of that legacy.