What Are the Characteristics of Modern Dance?

An Interpretive, Contemporary Style

Dance Studio
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Born in the early 20th century, modern dance is a dance style that focuses on a dancer's own interpretations instead of structured steps, as in traditional ballet dancing. Modern dancers reject the limitations of classical ballet and favor movements derived from the expression of their inner feelings.

During the 1900's, European dancers began rebelling against the rigid rules of classical ballet. Turning against the structured techniques, costumes, and shoes of ballet, these dancers favored a more relaxed, freestyle form of dancing. For example, modern dance pioneers often danced in bare feet and revealing costumes. In the United States, several dance pioneers paved the way for American modern dance, including the legendary Martha Graham.

Martha Graham, American Modern Dance Pioneer

Martha Graham is considered one of the foremost pioneers of American modern dance. In order to express the passion, rage, and ecstasy of humans, she developed her very own language of movement.

Graham created a new dance technique similar to classical ballet, but with several differences. She focused heavily on basic human movement, concentrating on the movements of contraction and release. Instead of striving for long, fluid movements, Graham's movements were sharp and jagged. Her dancing aimed to expose basic human emotions through movement, and her brave vision for modern dance earned her several awards and honors.

The Characteristics of Contemporary Dance

Modern dance encourages dancers to use their emotions and moods to design their own steps and routines. It is not unusual for dancers to invent new steps for their routines, instead of following a structured code of technique, as in ballet.

Another characteristic of modern dance, in opposition to ballet, is the deliberate use of gravity. Whereas classical ballet dancers strive to be light and airy on their feet, modern dancers often use their body weight to enhance movement. This type of dancer rejects the classical ballet stance of an upright, erect body, often opting instead for deliberate falls to the floor.

Modern Dance Routines Today

Modern dance has become a huge genre in the dance world today and is typically listed as a class offered on the schedules of most dance studios. Some dancers feel that modern dance gives them a chance to enjoy ballet dancing without the strict focus on their technique and turnout.

Many dance competitions throughout the nation judge dancers on their modern dancing ability and dancers take this opportunity to use their dancing to express their innermost emotions and get closer to their inner-selves. Watching a modern dancer can sometimes become emotional, especially if the dancer is trying to convey a series of sad emotions, such as death or grief.

Here are some of the steps that dancers take when developing a routine:

  • Before attempting to choreograph a routine, the modern dancer decides which emotions to try to convey to the audience.
  • Many modern dancers choose a subject near and dear to their hearts, such as a lost love or a personal failure.
  • The dancer then chooses music that relates to the story they wish to tell or choose to use no music at all, followed by a costume to reflect their chosen emotions.

Taking Local Dance Classes

To learn modern dance, check the yellow pages or local newspaper for possible classes.

For dancers attending their first modern dance class, there are certain types of shoes and clothes to wear. While some studios have strict dress requirements, most dancers will be safe showing up in tights and a leotard underneath a top or skirt. As for shoes, many modern dancers prefer to wear leather or canvas ballet slippers, and some like the feeling of bare feet.