Democracy and Dance

Martha Graham reshaped American dance over her 70 year career. She was the first dancer to perform at the White House. Her dance school is the oldest one in America. In recognition for her dance achievements, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction.

In 1942, Martha Graham commissioned Aaron Copeland to compose the music for a ballet which captured the American experience. The result of the commission was Appalachian Spring.

Appalachian Spring involves a spring celebration of the completion of a new farmhouse by a young couple. The home is in the wilderness. The newlyweds are anticipating their future, but an older pioneer woman cautioned them of the challenges ahead. She shared with the couple the resources they would need to use to meet the challenge. The ballet is a parable for the challenges to be faced by the American democracy. You can see Part 1 of the dance here.

The Aaron Copeland composition has become popular with symphonies especially when they feature American themes. One of the songs, Simple Gifts is from the Shaker faith. Its stirring melody is a tribute to the gift of democracy that forms the theme of the ballet. You can hear Simple Gifts here. Copeland won the Pulitzer Prize for his composition.

Appalachian Spring is a ballet about democracy. Its dancers represent the pioneering spirit of America. The ballet is a contrast to the ballets from countries where democracy didn’t exist at the time the ballet was created.

The parallels between the art of ballet and democracy are striking. The flexibility exhibited by the dancers is symbolic of the freedoms provided in a democracy. The pas de deux dance routines where two dancers perform together represent the best of democracy where one person can often lift the hopes of others. The transitions in the storyline are representative to the peaceful transition of power in a democracy.

Martha Graham has been referred to as the Picasso of dance. Both took their art to a new place, breaking away from traditions of the past. Democracies provide the freedom to challenge traditions and to innovate. Art is not static, nor is a democracy.

Just imagine how one’s creative energy would respond to non-democratic environments. Art does not respond well to regimentation? Just imagine art as a way for challenging current thinking? Would such challenges be accepted in a non-democratic society? Just imagine art as an expression of freedom no matter its form?

* * *

“While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.”– Hans Bos (A citizen of Terre Haute, Indiana)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.