What did Martha Graham think of Jewish women dancers?


Martha Graham, the preeminent leader of modern dance in the 20th century, was born on May 11, 1894. On New Year’s Day 1934, JTA published an interview with Graham, where she lamented what she perceived to be the declining role of women and dance in Gemany at the time:

The position of the woman in Germany (you know the dance is matriarchal today) in going back to church, kitchen and child, means that the dance must become inpoverished here. This is a return to medievalism with its corresponding lack of freedom fo body. Many of the finest dancers have had to leave the country," said Miss Graham.

Graham also commented at length on the psyche of the Jewish women that she instructed. As the interviewer wrote, "Martha Graham is a New Englander-‘a tenth generation Puritan,’ she says. Her sharp Anglo-Saxon features were intent and serious as she spoke with unusual understanding of the Jewish personality:"

Miss Graham has had occasion to study Jewish traits among her own group of girls, the majority of whom are Jewish. She claims that as an outstider she can perhaps better judge Jewish characteristics. She finds that Jewish girls are quicker to grasp, react and understand. They mature more quicky, says Miss Graham.

"Jewish girls are anxous for cultural development. They have an eagerness and enthusiasm with which they meet life and situations. A studious frame of mind, and a reverence for the arts is part of their racial makeup."

She went on to explain why, although they have all these qualities, few Jewish girls ever become leaders in the field of the creative dance. "The Jewish girl is apt to be over-enthusiastic, to lose herself," said Miss Graham "She often fails to see that she must discipline herself before she can become an artist. Artistry lies in restraint as much as in expression.

"The dance today is impersonal and the Jewess can rarely divorce herself from the personal. The Jewish woman is a born actress. That is where she enjoys the personal reactions to the rest of her fellow humans. But the dance is like music, it is man’s relations to his world rather than to his fellow men."

Readers–especially female–what do you make of Martha Graham’s assessment at the time? Read the full interview here and comment below.

Subsequent to this interview, Martha Graham’s Jewish ties would eventually include a 1956 performance in Israel, training and supervising the Batsheva Dance Company from its founding in 1963 — the same year she received an honorary degree from Brandeis University — and demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jewish ballet stars, Valery and Galina Panov, who later performed in a special engagement with Batsheva in 1978.

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