A Peek at Human Cognition: How Do You Think About Martha Graham?

A Peek at Human Cognition: How Do You Think About Martha Graham?

A Peek at Human Cognition: How Do You Think About Martha Graham?

Martha Graham’s creative process reveals our own imagining minds.

Before the language of expression, comes the inspiration of first thoughts. Before the dancer creates her first step, she imagines it in her mind. Surprisingly, she may not initially imagine it as bodily movement. Using the dancer-choreographer Martha Graham as an example, we can take a peek into human cognition. And what we find can give us a clue to what’s going on in our own heads.

Because a dancer “speaks” with movements of the body, many people assume that she thinks primarily or only in body images. This is certainly the case for psychologist Howard Gardner, who claims that Graham was primarily a “bodily-kinesthetic thinker” in his book Creating Minds (1993). But to equate the way a dancer expresses herself with the way in which she generates her ideas is wrong-headed. Any kind of sensation, feeling, emotion, or image can be transformed into movement.*

One of the greatest dancer-choreographers of the 20th century, Graham was in fact a highly visual and verbal thinker. In her memoir, Blood Memory, she writes of visiting an art show featuring the work of Wassily Kandinsky: “I saw across the room a beautiful painting…[that] had a streak of red going from one end to the other. I said, “I will do that someday. I will make a dance like that…And I did.” In Graham’s Diversion of Angels, “a woman in red…flashes across the stage as erotic love…and the girl in red is the Kandinsky flame.”

Graham’s inventive process began well before bodily composition on the dance floor. Her published notebooks reveal a rich mix of personal musings, poems (visual images rendered verbally!) and dance plots. She describes the early stages of her creative process thus: “I would put a typewriter on a little table on my bed, bolster myself with pillows, and write all night…I get the ideas going. Then I write down, I copy out of any books that simulate me at the time many quotations…” Intermediately, before she ever reached the dance floor, Graham expressed herself in words.

Even when she advanced to the stage of studio composition, Graham continued to think things through with verbally rendered images, emotions and movements. She inspired her dancers with poetic visions of porous sculptures and growing vines. “Then when it comes to the actual work,” she wrote, “I keep a complete record of the steps…I just put it down and know what the words mean, or what the movements mean and where you go and what you do and maybe an explanation here or there.”

Gardner to the contrary, Graham was not a uni-dimensional thinker. In addition to her identity as a dancer-choreographer, she saw herself as a visual artist: “Perhaps you might call [my work] painting with movement,” she observed. She also felt an affinity with the novelist or playwright: “If you are stuck for a gesture, say the word, say the sentence. The action will come.” She might also have mentioned the actor, for she had trained herself in theater; or the composer, for she worked tirelessly to achieve what she called “a breath association” between the dance and its musical accompaniment. Graham used a range of sense imagery to inspire the ideas and emotions she transformed into words and, ultimately, into the body movements and gestures of dance. She possessed a multi-intelligent mind.

We can learn a lot about ourselves by observing world-class thinkers at work (see our Sparks of Genius). First, there are distinctions to be made between the way(s) we think and the way we express, between the way(s) we generate ideas and the way we translate those ideas into our professional work. Second, these two aspects – thinking (cognition) and expressing (communication) – both belong equally to the creative process. And, third, disciplinary products (dances, etc.) can be a poor guide to the personal thinking processes which first shape our insights and ideas.

Martha Graham once said, “A dancer’s art is built on an attitude of listening, with his whole being.” That’s probably a good prescription for those of us also in search of creative insight. What does your whole being tell you? What kinds of imagery flit across your imagining mind while reading about Martha Graham – or courting personal inspiration? And how do those images mesh with the demands of your vocation or avocation? A thinker’s art is built on an attitude of listening to the world without and the mind within.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2012

* (This is the premise of a teacher workshop Michele co-presents with dance professor, Lynnette Overby, in association with the Kennedy Center Partners in Education Program. Students observe, abstract, and form patterns with body as well as words. Interested? Email rootber3@msu.edu)


Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Graham, Martha. The Notebooks of Martha Graham. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1973.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Root-Bernstein, M. & Root-Bernstein, R. “Martha Graham, Dance, and the Polymathic Imagination: A Case for Multiple Intelligences or Universal Thinking Tools?" Invited contribution to The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, special issue of Journal of Dance Education, v. 3, no. 1 (2003): 16-27. Electronic reprints available on request. Contact us at rootber3@msu.edu (Michele) or rootbern@msu.edu (Robert).

Root-Bernstein, R. & Root-Bernstein, M. Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

comments powered by Disqus