Helen McGehee, a highly effective dancer in Martha Graham’s firm because the 1940s and a distinguished instructor recognized for her tough-love rigor, died on April 9 in Lynchburg, Va., the place she lived. She was 98.
Her demise was confirmed by Pamela Risenhoover, a shut pal and a professor at Randolph College in Lynchburg, with which Ms. McGehee was lengthy related.
The choreographer Paul Taylor, a former Graham company member, playfully but accurately captured Ms. McGehee’s qualities as a dancer and teacher in his memoir, “Private Domain.” “She is basically a lyric dancer but she can turn into a spark-ejecting demonette when cast in dramatic roles,” he wrote. “At these times, her intensity takes me by surprise.”
Her technical strength could also prove stunning. “When she repeatedly rose up to a half-toe position on one leg,” going from low squat to relevé, Mr. Taylor wrote, “the rest of her Juilliard students and I croaked.”
Helen Gray McGehee was born on May 10, 1921, in Lynchburg. Her father, William McGehee, worked for a clothing manufacturing company. Her mother, Helen (Mahood) McGehee, was an artist who came from a family of women who painted.
In 2008, the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond presented an exhibition, “A Creative Dynasty: Four Generations of Virginia Women,” featuring artwork by her great-grandmother Julia Blount, her grandmother Sallie Mahood, her mother and herself.
While dancing with the Graham troupe for 29 years, Ms. McGehee created original roles that included a joyous young girl in love in “Diversion of Angels” and the vengeful Electra in “Clytemnestra.” In 1947, she took on her most celebrated role as the ferocious leader of a Greek chorus in “Night Journey,” Graham’s retelling of the Jocasta-Oedipus story. She also became an independent choreographer and costume designer.
Growing up in an artistic household, Ms. McGehee encountered no family opposition when she left right after graduation in 1942 from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) to study at Martha Graham’s school in New York City.
In 1950, she married Rafael Alfonso Umaña Mendez, a Colombian artist known professionally as Umaña. He died in 1994. Ms. McGehee leaves no immediate survivors.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. McGehee taught the Graham technique at the Harvard Summer Dance Center, where she pushed her students to develop the muscular body core needed to execute demanding choreography.
“She knew how to transfer her enormous focus on movement,” said Iris Fanger, the former director of the Harvard center and a dance critic. “In her classes, you were concentrating all the time. She had energy that never faltered, and the students responded.”
Ms. McGehee also taught rigorous classes as a founding member of the Juilliard School dance division from 1951 to 1982.
Ms. Risenhoover said of Ms. McGehee and her husband, “They taught many a young artist how to be a young artist, and how to enjoy life as a committed artist.”