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A Blessed Unrest: Martha Graham in 7 Quotes

“The only sin is mediocrity.” – Martha Graham

I only know of Martha Graham, and associate her appropriately with modern dance, which admittedly I wrestle with. I’ve witnessed way too many angst-ridden dance competitions on the journey of my daughter dancing from kindergarten to High School Senior. But I respect the beauty of formal dance (while struggling with the abundance of teen angst), and wanted to understand the genius of Graham through her words. As with other geniuses, her brilliance transcends her art and her life. Speaking of the sin of mediocrity speaks to her passionate pursuit of the exceptional.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable 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 yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Do you feel the urgency in those words? I do. I read a quote like that and understand. What is your quickening? Are you translating your vitality through action or wasting it in the trivial pursuits? Graham lived to 97 and packed those years with transformative action. What of our life force?

“‘Age’ is the acceptance of a term of years. But maturity is the glory of years.”

Growing older but not up is a state of mind; to remain young at heart. But it can also be an excuse for not getting to where you want to go. The glory of years is an accumulation of life and accomplishments and the ripples that resonate well beyond our time. It’s something to aspire to, not “getting older”, but accumulating maturity.

“Practice is the means of inviting the perfection desired.”

There’s no secret in how people reach mastery. We know it intuitively even if we don’t see the hours upon hours of work that go into muscle memory. These are the layers of competence that stack up to brilliance. Put in the time, do the work, make the mistakes, and reach for the next level. It’s the only way.

“Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can”

What is your why? Why are you doing all this in the first place? What whispers in your ear and prods you along? Without your why you’re just going through the motions. And what a waste that is.

“Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul’s weather to all who can read it.”

For all our words, our thoughts are betrayed by our bodies. You see it in how someone greets you, how someone answers a pointed question, and in how they dance with the world around them. We frequently won’t listen to what our gut is telling us, instead only believing what the mind is telling us to believe. Not wanting to be ignored, the gut tells the world what we won’t hear in ourselves.

“Think of the magic of the foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle and the dance is a celebration of that miracle.”

I’m not much of a dancer, not like those well-choreographed, practiced dancers people naturally circle on the dance floor in reverence, but I like to dance my own clydesdale celebratory dance anyway. Someday when the pandemic is over and weddings and other such gatherings seem appropriate again, we’ll find ourselves on a dance floor somewhere and we will rise up to celebrate life in all its glory. The celebration of that miracle – our being, our aliveness, the magic of it all, was the why in Graham’s life, and shouldn’t it be in our own lives as well? For we dance with life in all its complexity, pain and joy. There’s magic in being alive, and that’s reason enough to dance. And to rise up to more.

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One Comment

  1. It was Mark Twain that said, “Dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth.”

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