Martha Graham was one of the most influential dancers and choreographers in the history of modern dance. Her fiery spirit and passion, and her complex movements, had a revolutionary effect in the evolution of modern dance as an emotional mode of expression. In a 1970s interview, actress Bette Davis, who studied briefly under Graham, said, "I worshiped her. She was all tension lightning. Her burning dedication gave her spare body the power of ten men." Born in Pittsburgh and raised from the age of 12 in Santa Barbara, California, Graham grew up in a very comfortable home. Her father was one of the scientists to study the effect and persistence of personality traits. Shortly after graduation from the University of Cumnoch, where she studied theater and dance, Graham joined the prestigious Denishawn School and Dance Company in Los Angeles in 1916. During the ten years that she danced for the company, she explored a wide range of dance styles including folk, experimental, classical, Occidental, Oriental, and Native American. While dancing in Denishawn productions, Graham developed many lasting relationships. Two years later, she left Denishawn to teach at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York and pursue an independent career as a dancer; in 1926, she began working with Louis Horst, a composer and former music director at Denishawn. They continued collaborating until Horst's death in 1964.
Graham danced her debut recital at the 48th Street Theater in New York on April 18, 1926. She continued to dance until 1970, when she appeared in Cortege of Eagles at the age of 76. She remained active, however, as a choreographer, producing new ballets for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, until her death in 1991. Opening the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1929, Graham choreographed her first non-solo ballet, Heretic, two years later. In order to raise funds, she modeled furs and taught classes that included students Bette Davis and Gregory Peck. In the mid-'30s, Graham turned down an invitation to dance at the Olympic Games in Germany, protesting the political views of Hitler and the Nazis. Graham's greatest period began in 1939 when Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins joined her company. Although she and Hawkins were married in 1948 after living together for eight years, their marriage fell apart within a year. In 1955, Paul Taylor joined her company. Four years later, Graham collaborated with influential choreographer George Balanchine on a new ballet, Episodes. Beginning in 1944, Graham worked with Japanese-American sculptor and set designer Isamu Noguchi. Their use of imaginative three-dimensional sets had a profound effect on the visual aspects of modern dance. Toward the end of her life, Graham was honored with many important awards including the Medal of Freedom in 1976 and the Legion d'Honneur, from the French government, in 1984. Graham was choreographing a new ballet, The Eye of the Goddess, for the Olympics in Barcelona when she died.