Born in Pittsburgh, family moved to California in 1908 where she saw a performance of Ruth Saint-Denis that inspired her to become a dancer. Would later study at Saint-Denis' dance school. In 1926, took a teaching job at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and gave her first recital at the 48th Street Theatre in New York City. A year later, opened her own school, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In 1936, established the school of modern dance at Bennington College. Was invited to perform at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but declined.
Gave her first performance at the White House for the Roosevelts in 1937 and would dance for seven other presidents. Most notable and probably longest lasting work was Appalachian Spring, choreographed in 1944. Didn't stop dancing until 1970, when she was 76 years old. Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, and in 1984 was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. Continued writing ballets until her death in 1991.