Dance was pretty much not just the first thing I was really good at, but really the first thing I was good at, at all. But while my peers went to ballet school and dreamed of pointe shoes and being in The Nutcracker, I wound up at The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance as soon as I was old enough for them to let me in.
I don’t recall whose idea this was — mine or my parents’ — but looking back on it, it seems about, among other things, how much I wasn’t made for the world of ballet. I was not P&G, I did not have long hair, I was terribly fragile but not at all delicate.
Martha Graham’s dance probably taught me more about being a woman than anything else I have ever done. It taught me more than Hewitt, where I mostly felt inadequate at performing my gender; and more than my parents, who were shocked and confused when I took it upon myself to shave my legs because that’s what all the other girls were doing.
But the things Graham dance taught me were weird. Weird for an eleven-year-old anyway. Because they were about sex and death and ritual and a life spent on the ground. Sometimes, when I think about how I’m too serious, or don’t get teasing, or do all this scholarship about sex and gender and mourning and death, or felt so proud of the way I endured the relationship disasters of my 20s, I think, this is all Graham’s fault for teaching me that a girl’s fate is grief and vengefulness.
I don’t mind, really, but it’s a funny legacy to carry around in my body. It’s something I’ve lived with longer than almost anything else about me, after all.
Graham is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. She would have been 117 today. She died when I was 18, at college and unable to pursue dance because of health problems and needing to have the financial support of my family to attend school. I remember coming home to go to the celebration of her life and her work at City Center. I remember thinking I should have been up there. I remember thinking I would never be able to iron my hair straight enough to be a “little Martha,” and so maybe nothing was so different from ballet in the end after all.
But I speak the way I speak as much because of her as because of all the speech therapy I had growing up. And it’s such a funny, funny thing to see the way I move, and the way I hurt, dancing, spritely, in my web browser.
Other lives. We are always in some way leaving them.