Show some respect! for Martha Graham … and Jack Cole 5


I was intrigued to learn, while doing research, that Jack Cole, a great dance pedagogue, instructed his pupils as follows: “Jack asked us to stand when he entered the dance studio, like Martha Graham‘s students,” one of Cole’s late-life students at UCLA told me in an interview. Cole was long an admirer of Graham with whom he studied. Both choreographers were artistic descendants of Denishawn.

Wow, does that mean that Martha Graham’s pupils didn’t just sit on their duffs shooting the breeze when a great artist arrived to teach them?

I fact-checked this with Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Graham company. Really and truly? I asked Janet. Did you stand for Graham before class?

“Yes, absolutely! ” replied Ms. Eilber, in an email. “Standing when the teacher enters the room to teach was established long before I joined the Company.  I learned it from my first Graham class at Juilliard in 1969, and it continues today.”

This was amazing to learn. The students’ casual body language on view in this photo of Jack Cole, below, teaching at Jacob’s Pillow in 1971 always disturbed me.

Ms. Eilber continued, “Martha rarely spoke about it — she didn’t have to — who wouldn’t stand when Martha Graham entered a room?!

Ms. Eilber explained, “It was clear to all that it was a moment of respect and dedication — to the teacher, the space (wherever a dancer stands is sacred ground) and to the journey you were embarking on (the class.)  You were expected to clear your mind, focus and give every fiber of your being to the process. “

How did it work?, I asked.

“She would enter, say, ‘Be seated, please,’ then turn with a small bow to the pianist and say, ‘Shall we begin?’ Small pause —  then we would start the bounces.”

“Bounces,” for your information, are the first in a sequence of warm-up exercises in a Martha Graham technique class. The below photo shows bounces in “second position.”

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5 thoughts on “Show some respect! for Martha Graham … and Jack Cole

  1. debra levine Jul 8,2020 7:09 pm

    Thank you, Gina, for sharing your memories and your devotion to dance. Debra

  2. Gina Buntz Jul 8,2020 1:58 pm

    Standing for Martha was really standing-up for your art form. It’s a beautiful ritual that invites solemnity and respect for our elders and honoring the space around and within us. It invites physical and spiritual expression. I loved those moments and treasure them dearly.

  3. debra levine Jul 7,2020 2:59 pm

    Thank you, Wendy, for your excellent eye. The Jack Cole photo is all the more precious because it captures a ‘teaching moment.’ And I agree, dance icons were often (but not exclusively, I would say) “family” and first-name basis. Thus, Twyla, Merce, and Misha. You *never* referred to him as Cunningham; rather, “Merce.” There are outliers, Miss Ruth comes to mind.

  4. Wendy Perron Jul 7,2020 2:51 pm

    I can attest to standing for the teacher as early at 1963 at the Graham school, as a sign of respect. And yet we called all the teachers by their first names. It was David, not Mr. Wood. It was Mary, not Miss Hinkson. That is a modern dance tradition.
    Interesting to note that the tradition of standing for the teacher crossed over into The Ailey School too.
    A note about the photo of Jack Cole teaching at the Pillow in 1971: To my eye,those students are not lounging. They are caught in the middle of a floor combination, which is clear cuz they all have their right knee up. My guess is that Cole stopped the music so he could make a point. Any second now, the music will come back and the students will proceed with performing the phrase.

  5. Bob Boross Jul 7,2020 11:18 am

    I had a semester long scholarship at the Ailey school in 1977, when the school was located at 2nd Ave and 59th St. Prior to my very first Horton class, I was sitting on the floor with all others, stretching and getting ready. Everyone then stood up at once, but I didn’t notice. I remained on the floor stretching. The instructor was Denise Jefferson, who eventually became director of the school. She had entered the room, and that is why everyone jumped to their feet. Well, she marched right over to me and started to chew me out in front of everyone, for not standing when she entered the room. “Boy, you STAND UP when I enter the room!” I remember her saying. After that – I stood up immediately upon her entrance. I learned my lesson quickly!

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