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Dance Is Like Thought: Helen Keller Visits Martha Graham’s Studio

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” A stirring encounter at the pinnacle of the human spirit.

From Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library), which gave us that wonderful daisy chain of encounters between Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller, comes another moving meeting of great spirits, this time between Helen Keller, iconic choreographer Martha Graham, and legendary dancer Merce Cunningham (whom you might recall as the love of John Cage’s life).

At seventy-two, already admired far and wide for her extraordinary story of unhinging disability from destiny, Keller meets the Grand Dame of modern dance. Brown writes:

Graham is immediately taken by what she calls Helen’s ‘gracious embrace of life’, and is impressed by what appears to be her photographic memory. They become friends. Before long, Helen starts paying regular visits to the dance studio. She seems to focus on the dancers’ feet, and can somehow tell the direction in which they are moving. Martha Graham is intrigued. ‘She could not see the dance but was able to allow its vibrations to leave the floor and enter her body.’

On one of her visits, Helen says, ‘Martha, what is jumping? I don’t understand.’

Graham is touched by this simple question. She asks a member of her company, Merce Cunningham, to stand at the barre. She approaches him from behind, says, ‘Merce, be very careful, I’m putting Helen’s hands on your body,’ and places Helen Keller’s hands on his waist.

Cunningham cannot see Keller, but feels her two hands around his waist, ‘like bird wings, so soft’. Everyone in the studio stands quite still, focusing on what is happening. Cunningham jumps in the air while Keller’s hands rise up with his body. ‘Her hands rose and fell as Merce did,’ recalls Martha Graham, in extreme old age.

‘Her 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.’

Cunningham continues to perform small leaps, with very straight legs. He suddenly feels Keller’s fingers, still touching his waist, begin to move slightly, ‘as though fluttering’. For the first time in her life, she is experiencing dance. ‘Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!’ she exclaims when he stops.

Helen Keller visits Martha Graham’s studio. (1954)
Image: Perkins School for the Blind Archive
Helen waits while Martha Graham positions her hands. A male and female dancer look on. (1954)
Image: Perkins School for the Blind Archive
Helen Keller surrounded by a group of young dancers at Martha Graham’s studio, including Graham herself. (1954)
Image: Perkins School for the Blind Archive

In this short excerpt from the 1954 documentary The Unconquered: Helen Keller in Her Story, Keller pays a visit to Graham’s dance studio — to watch this is to witness a true triumph of the human spirit:

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello, a kind of real-life Circles of Influence culled from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera, strings together similar vignettes of little-known true encounters between cultural icons — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more.

Published October 22, 2012




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