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Martha Graham's House of the Pelvic Truth: The Figuration of Sexual Identities and Female Empowerment

  • Henrietta Bannerman

Martha Graham writes in her autobiography Blood Memory that she was bewildered, or, as she puts it “bemused,” when she heard how dancers referred to her school as “the house of the pelvic truth” (Graham 1991, 211). We might perhaps agree with Graham that this is not the best description for a highly respected center of modern dance training; neither does it match Graham's image as an awe-inspiring and exacting teacher, nor does it suit the seriousness with which her tough technique is regarded. But the house of the pelvic truth does chime with stories about Graham's often frank method of addressing her students. She is reputed to have told one young woman not to come back to the studio until she had found herself a man. At other times she would tell her female students, “you are simply not moving your vagina” (211). Add to this other stories about the men in the company suffering from “vagina envy” (211), and it can be readily understood that the goings-on in the Graham studio gave rise to its nickname, “house of the pelvic truth.”

In British dance circles of the 1960s, it was not rumors of the erotic that attracted most of us to Graham's work or persuaded us to travel to New York in search of the Graham technique. There was little in the way of contemporary dance training in Britain at this time, and we had been mesmerized by the beautiful and rather chaste film A Dancer's World (1957), in which Graham pronounces: a dancer is not a phenomenon … not a phenomenal creature.… I think he is a divine normal. He does what the human body is capable of doing. Now this takes time…it takes about ten years of study. This does not mean he won't be dancing before that time, but it does take the pressure of time, so that the house of the body can hold its divine tenant, the spirit. (1962, 24)

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Dance Research Journal
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