Submission Date


Document Type




Faculty Mentor

Bailey Anderson


Presented during the 22nd Annual Summer Fellows Symposium, July 24, 2020 at Ursinus College.

A related presentation is available here.

Project Description

This project explores the sociocultural and political implications of the use of the labels “mad” and “genius,” as they relate to two prominent 20th-century modern dance choreographers – Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. Martha Graham is in multiple writings called a genius, both by critics and dancers. However, although a similarly prominent figure in the canon of modern dance, Alvin Ailey is not called a genius nearly as often. This is notable given the many parallels in their artistic and personal lives. Both artists contributed significantly to the history of modern dance in the 20th century, were sponsored by the US State Department to tour globally, and created prominent dance companies that have outlived them. On a personal level, both were known for having explosive, difficult temperaments, and both have been described as having mental illnesses. Notable, however, are the two artists’ differences in gender, race, and sexuality; on the most basic level, Ailey was a Black gay man, and Graham was a white straight woman. Coming from a Mad Studies framework, this research frames “madness” not as biomedical pathology, but rather as a position of social otherness similar to queerness, poverty, and Blackness. Thus, it is argued that the “genius” label is used to excuse these kinds of otherness in individuals deemed worthy, without requiring the active confrontation of the power structures which keep the aforementioned identities disadvantaged.

Open Access

Available to all.