She walked by me one day. I was ten years old, and a student at the Martha Graham Contemporary Dance School in Manhattan. I was waiting outside the school after an arduous dance class for my mother to pick me up, when an emerging limo pulled up, and parked by the sidewalk in front of the school.
Out stepped a tall woman, dressed head to toe in a black cat suit, her hair in a perfect bun atop her head, a brooch pinned above her left breast, her only jewelry, glistening in the warm sun. She walked like a lanky panther. One couldn’t help but stare at this woman, a woman with presence and graceful strength, and wonder who she was…but I already knew.
I was terribly shy at the age of ten, with no idea of self. I didn’t like the bullies at the private school I attended, but could be myself with my neighborhood friends, whom I adored. I always knew what dance and movement meant to me, having danced since the age of four. I knew what a living icon Graham was, though I was just glimpsing the edge of the art world, as if tasting a flavor of ice-cream, without eating the cone. I couldn’t comprehend the dualities of the art world and regular “civilian” life as it were, where I came from.
To me, Graham represented someone not just of legendary status, but someone who lived fully in the moment, as many creative and theatrical people often do. How does one get to see a living legend up close, especially at the age of ten? In the dance world, seeing Martha Graham walk close by in the flesh was akin to a spiritual experience.
When I saw her, I wasn’t prepared. Her every step was naturally dramatic, as if she were performing a dance. I stood there, unable to breathe, my shyness suffocating me. My head screamed “Say hello to her, say something!” But I just couldn’t, the shy ten year-old in me too bashful and insignificant feeling to muster a simple “hello.”
She wasn’t even aware of my existence as she pranced by. I felt let down; disappointed in myself for not taking the opportunity to introduce myself as a student of her art, as if that would have even mattered. Maybe if she noticed me, I would have felt different.
Regardless, I stood perfectly still watching her, studying her. She had the presence of greatness, not a person putting on false airs. She just “was.”
When people saw her, they stopped in their tracks as well; older students, younger students, instructors, it didn’t matter. They gathered around her like an excited flock of birds, as she looked down at her adoring nest of colorful dancers in pink and black leotards.
It took me a full five minutes to recover from her rare appearance. I knew I was lucky to see her in person, within arms reach practically. I wanted to run over to her like the other dancers flocking around as she walked inside, but couldn’t.
I envisioned myself coming across like a little puppy on her heels, and that just wasn’t me. It was at this time in my young life, maybe for the first time in my life up until that point, that I had glimpsed my inner being, realizing that I was something special as well, someone with my own sense of self pride, grace and dignity.
My mother pulled up and I told her the exciting news. We waited in the car across the street just to make sure it was Martha Graham. She emerged twenty minutes later, and my mother confirmed that it was indeed she. Graham stepped into her limo, and we watched, as the limo driver pulled away. I sighed.
She seemed just like everyone else when I saw her for the second time. I told my mother how I felt and she said “She’s just a person, Linda.” I nodded, and thought about what my mother said on our ride home over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, to my house in Staten Island.
The next day I showed my best friend, I’ll call her Janet, how to spin on one leg. She fell on her backside, laughing hysterically. I thought she should practice, that her lack of seriousness was insulting to the art. I thought of Martha Graham, and spun around in place, five times in a row. Janet’s mouth hung open, and I felt proud. I bet Martha would have approved.