By Donna Dunn
Helen McGehee was so shy growing up that she dreaded even the sight of a neighbor on the Lynchburg sidewalks of her childhood.
“My grandmother said if I saw people I knew I would have to speak to, I would begin to tremble,” McGehee, now 90, remembered.
Though she would not find her voice for many years, she would find expression. The woman whose name means “shining light” in Greek took to heart the words of her dance composition teacher, Louis Horst, who once told her, “You have the vanity of shyness. Just get over it.”
Indeed, she did.
McGehee not only performed with the world-renowned Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, beginning in the 1940s and becoming a lead dancer in 1954, she also helped to found the Juilliard School of Dance, serving on the faculty there from 1951 to 1984. She traveled around the globe appearing before audiences of many languages who “heard” her through movement.
“It was sort of wonderful to be able to say things with the body,” she said.
In February, the Lynchburg native received the James River Council for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. The Council recognized McGehee for “bringing distinction to Lynchburg and to Virginia for her legendary contributions to high attainment in modern dance.”
A Dancer’s World
Helen McGehee did not discover her talent for dance until she entered Randolph-Macon Women’s College in the late 1930s. The petite girl with vibrant blue eyes and a natural grace majored in Latin and studied ancient cultures. Then, a friend came into the “day room” and encouraged her to enter a dance class.
McGehee soon discovered she possessed excellent technique and an instinct for bringing to life a large variety of roles. At the same time, she remained humble about these talents.
“One of Helen’s most striking character traits is her modesty — yet another essential quality for a successful dancer. She is completely lacking in arrogance or in any need to demonstrate her superiority. In her writings about dance, Helen emphasizes the importance of being part of the whole, rather than striving for individual glory,” wrote Dr. Linda Thomas in her 2009 book, Squirt Blossom to Goddess: Helen McGehee’s Pursuit of Bliss as a Martha Graham Dancer.
McGehee lauds the instruction and support of Randolph-Macon dance instructor, Eleanor Struppa, for her early success. The then all-female college also afforded McGehee the opportunity to see many noted dance companies, including Martha Graham. McGehee excelled so quickly that she was selected to attend the June courses at the Martha Graham Dance Company, which had become a leader in the development of contemporary dance since its founding in 1926.
“I sensed that Martha Graham was the most important of those involved in the development of modern dance,” McGehee said.
For just $100, McGehee took two technique classes that summer. She returned for a second summer in New York as she was finishing college.
“[Martha Graham] said, ‘What will you do now?’ I said, ‘I suppose I’ll become a Latin teacher.’ She said, ‘Don’t be a fool,’” McGehee recalled with a smile.
McGehee was no fool. She joined what was and has been one of the greatest dance companies in the world.
“[Martha Graham] had a genius that attracted other geniuses to work with her. The company of my time had an extraordinary group that wanted to make something terrific,” she said.
McGehee has been lauded for her own dedication to excellence, as a dancer, choreographer and costumier.
An Artistic Partner
While it was an exciting time for the young dancer, McGehee was not isolated from the world around her that was at war by then. Moving to New York and beginning her career in the midst of World War II presented many challenges.
She met the man who would become her husband just weeks before he was drafted and eventually sent to the Pacific Theater for two years. McGehee and Rafael Alfonso Umaña Mendez, known as Umaña, were married in 1950. Umaña was an artist, whose work is now represented in numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and at Harvard University.
Being in New York from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then traveling around the world as McGehee performed provided a wide range of experiences and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. She said her favorite travels were in the Mediterranean region, which she had studied extensively as a Latin major. She enjoyed the travel and the dance profession because “it was always changing. That was what was so interesting.”
She used those experiences and her love of all things Roman and Greek in creating Changes, which was premiered in 1978 by the Juilliard Dance Ensemble. Each of the work’s six sections was devoted to a mythological figure: Pan, Phaeton, Niobe, Bacchus, Narcissus and Arethusa.
All along the way, Umaña supported his wife and even participated in her work, making sets for some of the pieces she choreographed and taking photos of the dancers.
“He was so great about my performing, so helpful,” she recalled.
McGehee, likewise, supported and admired her husband’s art. She was, herself, from a long line of artists, and she personally enjoyed drawing. In fact, in 2008, the Virginia Historical Society showcased the art of four generations of women in McGehee’s family. The exhibit was called A Creative Dynasty: Four Generations of Virginia Women.
Exhibition designer Andrew Gladwell recalled that when he met McGehee, he expected to talk about doing an exhibit based on her dancing. Instead, she suggested incorporating art from the three previous generations of women in her family. A unique combination of history and art, the exhibition included works by Julia Anne Morrison Blount (1831–1877); her daughter, Sallie Lee Blount Mahood (1864–1953); her daughter, Helen Gray Mahood McGehee (1892–1980); and her daughter, McGehee.
Julia Anne Blount took up painting out of necessity to support herself and her daughter after her husband was shot. Sallie Lee Mahood studied art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and in Paris, and became a successful portrait artist. After attending Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Helen Mahood McGehee became an accomplished miniaturist and orchestra musician.
McGehee herself now lives across the street from the house her grandmother, Sallie Mahood, lived in when McGehee was growing up in Lynchburg. McGehee bought the house in 1980, when she and Umaña decided to retire to her hometown, which had a much lower cost of living than New York. Umaña lived there until his death in 1994.
Upon moving back to Lynchburg, McGehee established the distinguished Visiting Artists Program at Randolph-Macon. Through the program, many young dancers have been exposed to a variety of styles and had the opportunity to pursue their dreams, just as McGehee did.
In a 1960s film produced by the Martha Graham Dance Company, McGehee said, “I hope that each person here will find something in your life which is as significant for you as dancing is for me.”
Today, the silver-haired nonagenarian continues to live in her Rivermont home, even while combatting mobility issues created by Meniere’s disease and a tick bite that caused some paralysis two years ago. Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that affects hearing and balance. McGehee calls it “nature’s punishment for balance.”
Still, the discipline she learned as a dancer serves her well. She spends each morning from 5:30 to 7 a.m. doing specific therapies to strengthen muscles around the affected areas. Because of this perseverance, she continues to keep up with dog, Spacer.
She has no advice for young dancers today, as she says each must find their own path. Yet, her tenacity serves as its own lesson.
“My time was lucky for me,” McGehee said. “Anyone who wants to do something, has to do something, has to do it enough to be lucky.”
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