Christophe Jeannot in Martha Graham Dance Company's Appalachian Spring
photo: john deane

Ever since we found this quote by the legendary choreographer Martha Graham on Elephant Journal the other day, it’s been haunting us, because we relate to SO much to it and because we DON’T relate to some of it, a curious mix.

“I believe that we learn by practice.

Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.

In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit.

One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God.

Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.

Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

We believe deeply that we learn by practice, and that improvising, like life, is a practice. “The principles ARE the same”; we learn to improvise by practicing improvising. That’s where we veer away a bit from Graham’s view.

We don’t think the “acts” we perform are “precise”; in our experience, they are often unplanned and very messy. From the practice of improvising, we feel ourselves to be not so much “an athlete of God” but more like a conduit of…something…a creative force……maybe God…

We do INVITE a “desired perfection”, but often don’t know what it is beforehand, and it definitely isn’t always perfect; if it is perfect, it’s not always what we planned.

But for sure, we think Graham got the gist better than just about anybody: Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.”

What’s your practice?

Photo: Christophe Jeannot in Martha Graham Dance Company’s Appalachian Spring, by John Deane.

Related posts: a book + music (‘free play’ + ‘the koln concert’)
about ‘the improvised life’
practicing yes
4-step algorithm for change
4 ways to step outside of your comfort zone + conquer the ‘ok plateau’
improvising as “listening”

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4 replies on “we dance with martha graham

  1. Isn’t precision towards an perfect act the difference between athletics and life? In athletics, you must practice as you want to perform at one event or a limited number of events. In life there is no perfect and no end goal, only constant practice and improvisation. If only life were as simple as athletics!

  2. thanks for this great post that is yet another invitation into awareness…to pause…to inquire…i realize that I appreciate the spaciousness of the improvised life and the instantaneous face to face with unlimited possibilities…its gentle prodding to play with fear and interrupt its grip with sweet suggestions that “mistakes” are simply markers on the path and a way of informing the various ways the road can bend…in the end I imagine that a conversation between Martha Graham and the Improvised Life to explore the subtleties of language and meaning would result in a lot of nodding “yes”

  3. When I read today’s post with the words “not so much “an athlete of God” but more like a conduit of…something…a creative force……maybe God…”, I recalled a brilliant TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on channeling our personal messengers of creativity.

    I find it full of reasons to keep practicing.

  4. Martha sounds very Buddhist. In that view, the point about precision means to not waste your time with methods that haven’t worked well so far, could cause harm or unhappiness, and won’t lead us to our goals (which is the kind of behavior many of us engage in repeatedly).

    Focusing one’s practice precisely on the best qualities, and renouncing the worst (i.e. negative habits & conditioning) are the most effective methods to fully reach our goals.

    Of course we don’t practice perfectly, otherwise there’d be no need. But what we attempt to practice should be of the highest standards and gradually we will live up to them, whether in dance or life. A big bonus comes with dropping the baggage of past errors and failures; –with those no longer holding us back, it becomes vastly easier to improvise.

    Martha, even with her technical skill, was one of the great improvisationalists and innovators in dance afterall.

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