What Is Contemporary Dance?

A Combination of Several Dance Genres

Contemporary dance performance
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Contemporary dance is a style of expressive dance that combines elements of several dance genres including modern, jazz, lyrical and classical ballet. Contemporary dancers strive to connect the mind and the body through fluid dance movements. The term "contemporary" is somewhat misleading: it describes a genre that developed during the mid-20th century and is still very popular today.

Overview of Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance stresses versatility and improvisation, unlike the strict, structured nature of ballet. Contemporary dancers focus on floorwork, using gravity to pull them down to the floor. This dance genre is often done in bare feet. Contemporary dance can be performed to many different styles of music.

Pioneers of contemporary dance include Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham because they broke the rules of the strict forms of ballet. These dancer/choreographers all believed that dancers should have freedom of movement, allowing their bodies to freely express their innermost feelings. It's important to note, however, that while Graham moved into what is now known as modern dance, and Duncan's style was uniquely her own, Cunningham is often spoken of as the father of contemporary dance.

Historic Roots of Contemporary Dance

Modern and contemporary dance has many elements in common; they are, in a way, branches stemming from the same roots. During the 19th century, theatrical dance performances were synonymous with ballet. Ballet is a formal technique that developed from court dance during the Italian Renaissance and became popular as a result of the support of Catherine de' Medici.

Around the end of the 19th century, several dancers began to break the ballet mold. Some of these individuals included Francois Delsarte, Loïe Fuller, and Isadora Duncan, all of whom developed unique styles of movement based on theories of their own. All focused less on formal techniques, and more on emotional and physical expression.

Between about 1900 and 1950, a new dance form emerged which was dubbed "modern dance." Unlike ballet or the works of Duncan and her "Isadorables," modern dance is a formalized dance technique with a specific aesthetic. Developed by such innovators as Martha Graham, modern dance is built around breathing, movement, contraction, and release of muscles. 

Alvin Ailey was a student of Martha Graham's. While he maintained a stronger connection with older techniques, he was the first to introduce African American aesthetics and ideas into contemporary dance.

During the mid-1940's another student of Graham's, Merce Cunningham, began exploring his own form of dance. Inspired by the radically unique music of John Cage, Cunningham developed an abstract form of dance. Cunningham took dance out of the formal theatrical setting and separated it from the need to express specific stories or ideas. Cunningham introduced the concept that dance movements could be random, and that each performance could be unique. Cunningham, because of his complete break with formal dance techniques, is often referred to as the father of contemporary dance.

Today's Contemporary Dance

Today's contemporary dance is an eclectic mix of styles, with choreographers drawing from ballet, modern, and "post-modern" (structureless) forms of dance. While some contemporary dancers create characters, theatrical events, or stories, others perform entirely new creations as they improvise in their own unique style.