Martha Graham, one of the great artists of the twentieth century — Picasso-level stature and influence in her field — entered my life late, in my 30s, when recording Julliard dancers for my art at Lincoln Center. They were perfect people to learn from, dancers actively learning her, describing a “Martha Graham revolution” I’d never heard of before. I’d feel bad about learning about her so late, but since then I’ve met plenty of people who haven’t heard of her either.
I understand she allowed few recordings of herself and her work. Her voice-over in the only one I’ve seen captures some elusive yet essential points about creativity, expression, discipline, repetition, and freedom.
When I heard these quotes the first time they resonated like only something spoken by a master could. They remain inspirational touchstones.
Many people confuse freedom of expression with randomness. They don’t get it. Freedom exists within structure, which you learn from practice, which, however ironically it may seem from the outside, comes from submission, discipline, repetition, and focus. These things come about through motivation. The outcome is freedom.
She says that better:
The dancer is realistic. His craft teaches him to be. Either the foot is pointed or it is not. No amount of dreaming will point it for you. This requires discipline, not drill, not something imposed from without, but discipline imposed by you yourself upon yourself. … Your goal is freedom. But freedom may only be achieved through discipline. In the studio you learn to conform, to submit yourself to the demands of your craft, so that you may finally be free.
With freedom comes fun and the best parts of life, including, for example, spontaneity and simplicity. When practicing your scales, running sprints, solving math problems, debugging software, or whatever bores the uninterested, these outcomes may seem as distant as imaginable, but if you keep at it they will be the outcome.
In her words:
And when a dancer is at the peak of his power, he has two lovely, powerful, perishable things. One is spontaneity, but it is something arrived at over years and years of training. It is not a mere chance. The other is simplicity, but that also is a different simplicity. It’s the state of complete simplicity, costing no less than everything, of which Mr. T. S. Eliot speaks.
Technical perfection is not the goal. Emotional enjoyment and passion are. If you have them, people will love what you do. If you don’t have them, find them. The best way to find them is to have fun.
In her words:
Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
EDIT: see this post for a beautiful illustration of this quote.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book