When Martha Graham was a child, she often visited her father’s office after work hours. One such day, she climbed on a pile of books so she could see the top of her father’s desk, where he was looking at a drop of water on a glass slide. When he asked her what she saw, she described it as “pure water.” He slipped the slide under the lens of a microscope, and she peered once more through the lens. “But there are wriggles in it,” she said in horror.
“Yes, it is impure,” he replied. “Just remember this all your life, Martha. You must look for the truth—good, bad, or unsettling.”
“Movement,” he taught her, “never lies.” It was a lesson she would recall years later, as she dictated her memoir, Blood Memory, at age ninety-six. “In a curious way, this was my first dance lesson,” Graham writes, “a gesture toward the truth. Each of us tells our own story even without speaking.”
A few years earlier, and several states away, Helen Keller had her own revelation about water—she realized that what was flowing over her hand from her family’s pump matched the word her teacher, Annie Sullivan, was signing into her hand: w–a–t–e–r. “Somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me,” Keller writes in her own memoir, The Story of My Life. “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
For both women, water facilitated a web of connection between materiality, movement, and language, a realization that led them, improbably, toward each other. When Keller was seventy-two years old, a friend introduced her to Graham, by then the doyenne of modern dance. Graham invited Keller to her dance studios at 66 Fifth Avenue to observe, and the two became fast friends. Both were already famous—Keller for untangling her blindness from her fate, Graham for believing that passion, not technique, was the pulse of dance. In her memoir, Graham says she was taken with Keller’s “ability to perceive life through her own unique awareness”; Keller followed Graham’s choreography by fixating on dancers’ feet on the floor, which she felt with her hands in order to learn in what direction the dance was going. Graham, always on the lookout for ways in which people use their bodies to make meaning of the air around them, observes that Keller “could not see the dance but was able to allow its vibrations to leave the floor and enter her body.”
The 1954 documentary The Unconquered: Helen Keller in Her Studio shows the first time Keller went to a Martha Graham Dance Company rehearsal. Graham is standing in a circle of dancers who run slowly around her to a beat we can’t hear in the recording. On counts of three, they land and pause, their arms waving overhead like branches in a breeze. Graham is wearing a floor-length dress and has her hair slicked into a chignon—dramatic, severe, and striking. Graham sees Keller and breaks through the circle of dancers to greet her, embracing her before leading her out of the camera’s view, presumably to sit down or take off her coat. Periodically, Annie Sullivan spells the action into Keller’s hand.
Graham leads Keller over to a drummer with four drums in front of him, and Keller reaches her hands out, hovering in the air around the drums. She has taught herself to pay attention using the vibrations around her and is still able to see and hear by following the directions of sound waves created by voices, bodies, and instruments. When Keller turns toward the camera, waving her hand through the air in front of her face, her face is awash in delight.
Keller feels the scarf a male dancer holds, trailing on the floor. Although she has been to dance performances, says the narrator, “it is only in a rehearsal room like this she is able to discover with her hands the line of body and limb that is the living pattern of the dance.” Keller traces the man’s leg as it développés. A développé is an unfolding motion, the foot peeling off the floor and tracing the shin to the knee, where it lifts to the front. Keller would have felt the hip moving, the leg bent and then straight. At that moment, she feels a woman who has joined the man with the scarf from her head to her toes, and the woman does a backbend away from him while Helen Keller traces the line of the woman’s neck, feels the weight of her head in her hand.
Behind her, Graham keeps her arms on Keller’s back like a dance partner, watching her, catching her. Keller is encircled with barefoot dancers in black unitards who step, step, arabesque, step, step, arabesque around her. Keller directs them from the center, arms overhead, joining in the dance, while Graham observes. “How,” Yeats asks, “can we know the dancer from the dance?” Keller’s participation in this choreography blends the dancer and the dance, showing one cannot exist without the other.
According to Graham’s memoir, in one of her visits to the dance studio, Helen Keller asked, “What is jumping?” In response, Graham asked Merce Cunningham, who was then one of her dancers, to stand at the barre. “Merce, be very careful,” she told him. “I’m putting Helen’s hands on your body.” She took Keller’s hands and placed them on Merce’s waist while he assumed first position. Merce began jumping, and as he moved up and down, up and down, so did Keller. She felt his muscles spring and release very quickly and the repetitive motion of her own hands over the machinations of his body. Merce kept jumping, and, Graham recalls, Keller’s “expression changed from curiosity to one of joy. You could see the enthusiasm rise in her face as she threw her arms in the air.” When Merce stopped, Keller exclaimed, “Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is.”
Though Graham and Keller’s friendship was unlikely, their different approaches to the body and to movement made them both student and teacher to each other. It’s a useful reminder that even late in life, discoveries await. It is difficult to imagine going fifty years without knowing what it means to jump. It is a shame that most of us do not remember the joy of learning.
Ellen O’Connell Whittet is a writer living in California. She is working on a memoir about ballet and the female body.