She was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and moved to California as a child. After seeing Ruth St. Denis perform in the 1910s, she took an interest in dance. Not until age 22 (1916) did she pursue her interest professionally by enrolling in the Denishawn Studio. In 1925, Graham became a dance instructor at the Eastman School of Music and Theater in Rochester, New York. She set out own her own in 1926 by founding her own modern dance company, the Martha Graham Dance company. Her unique style of modern dance mimicked the modern art of her time. Graham's performances made her famous for innovations in modern dance.
Graham's dancing life gradually came to a rest starting in the 1950s. In 1948, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established. Her final dance performances came in the late 1960s and from then on she focused on choreography. Some critics say that even though there is little physical record of her dances, they are more memorable than her choreographic work. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. (Ford's wife Betty had danced with Graham in her youth.) Graham continued to work on the art up until her death in 1991. TIME magazine listed her as the "Dancer of the Century" in 1998 and as one of the most important people of the 20th century.