Learn About Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance is a school of dance that emerged in the mid-20th century as modern dancers rejected the strict structural forms of classical ballet and other traditional forms of dance. Contemporary dance, often referred to as modern dance, offers a greater freedom of movement that allows for unrestrained emotional expression and the exploration of a wide range of political, social and other issues. Early contemporary dancers include Isadora Duncan, widely considered the founder of modern dance, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey.

Earlier forms of dance restricted dancers to a limited range of preconceived movements and gestures. With contemporary dance, dancers threw away these restrictions, opting to use their bodies as expressive tools. Dancers began to move more creatively, using a broader scope of different types of movements, from percussive and harsh to sinuous and relaxed, to convey all the emotions of the human spectrum. Modern and contemporary dance at first explored topics and stories derived from classical mythology, in much the same way as traditional forms of dance had done, but they soon branched out to include explorations of modern political and social concerns. Contemporary dance is often defined as a school of dance that seeks to blend the dance traditions of the world, from classical ballet and vaudeville to various global folk traditions, while still keeping the medium easy, safe and accessible to even beginning dancers, and respecting the individual performer’s ease of self-expression. It’s a versatile type of dance that can be performed to any musical style, and often finds itself combined in new and interesting ways with more traditional dance techniques.

Many contemporary dancers began developing their own unrestricted styles of dance simply because, like Isadora Duncan, they disliked the constraints of more classical styles. Later on, contemporary dancers like Alvin Ailey would reject the styles other modern dance pioneers in order to express their own unique experiences and individual cultural backgrounds. Loie Fuller, an early innovator, stunned European audiences by incorporating flowing lengths of silk and inventive theatrical lighting into her performance pieces. Katherine Dunham, who held a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, allowed African, African-American and Caribbean folk traditions to inform her dances.

Well-known contemporary dance pieces include Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a piece that has reached audiences in over 71 countries since its debut in 1960. Others include Heyoka, a 1981 piece by Erick Hawkins, and Sounddance, a 1975 piece by Merce Cunningham. Dancers in the contemporary school typically rely on four principal techniques. They are:

  • Limon, named for Jose Limon, a Mexican-American immigrant who founded the Jose Limon Dance Foundation after serving with the US in World War II. The Limon technique explores the relationship between body weight and gravity, and relies on the body’s weight as a catalyst for movement.
  • Cunningham, named for influential dancer Merce Cunningham, who founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953. Cunningham’s technique emphasizes the body’s own natural flow of energy, creating relaxed movements.
  • Release, a technique that underscores the release of physical tension in the muscles and joints in order to facilitate fluidity of motion.
  • Graham, named for Martha Graham, another early innovator who founded the Martha Graham Studio, now the Martha Graham Dance Company, in 1926. The Graham technique relies heavily on the use of pelvic and abdominal muscles. It is visibly very different from the classical ballet style, which Graham rejected in her work.

A single piece of contemporary dance choreography may combine all four of these core techniques. Improvisation is also key to contemporary dance expression. Improvisation may occur as an individual effort, or as an interaction between partners in a dance or members of a group performance.

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