What is “Contemporary” Dance?

Defining dance and locating its roots is never simple and never complete, but the attempt is always enlightening. All summer I have been thinking about Contemporary dance: Historically, how did Contemporary dance evolve? What are its major influences and artistic motivations? What are its distinguishing features? How does one train to become a Contemporary dancer? In my quest for answers I’ve searched the web, asked local dancers, and listened carefully to the judges on SYTYCD who often comment on the subject. (In fact, I never even heard of Contemporary before SYTYCD arrived on the air six years ago. Hence my curiosity.) Here are some beginning speculations on the subject.

Part 1: Historical Influences

I found one description on www.wisegeek.com. How well it expresses the opinion of the Contemporary dance community, I do not know, but it’s a good starting point.

“Contemporary dance is a style of dance which emerged in the 20th century as an outgrowth of modern dance and other 20th century dance techniques. Defining this style of dance can be difficult, as contemporary dance is an extremely fluid and very nebulous style of dance. Unlike traditions such as ballet, contemporary dance is not associated with specific dance techniques, but rather with a dance philosophy. In contemporary dance, people attempt to explore the natural energy and emotions of their bodies to produce dances which are often very personal.”

Everyone in my research agrees that Contemporary evolved from modern dance but no one can really say when the term “Contemporary” first replaced “Modern” and “Post-modern.” Often, Contemporary and Modern histories are conflated with both histories beginning with Isadora Duncan and ending with José Limon who died in 1972. Santa Cruz Contemporary Vernacular dancer Zari Le’on suggests that Deborah Hay and Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company are links between Modern and Contemporary. Batsheva was founded by Martha Graham in 1964, though as the current director, Naharin has created an entirely new technique called “Gaga.” In Gaga, Naharin provides an approach to movement more than a vocabulary such as Graham’s or Dunham’s.

While Modern dancers were devoted to singular approaches to dance, Contemporary dancers apparently borrow freely from many approaches. Nichelle Strzepek at DanceAdvantage agrees with this general history and suggests that “Modern” is a 20th century term while “Contemporary” refers to 21st century developments within the same genre:

“contemporary dance…is not a technique but a collection of principles regarding movement and the choreographic/performance process which are closely related to the goals of the original modern dancers and their techniques.”

Mia Michaels places the origins of Contemporary in Ballet and in doing so establishes technical ability as a primary element:

“There’s a difference between pedestrian contemporary and actually, like, real trained Contemporary…(Pedestrian) is more human gestures, it comes from a human place as opposed from a technical place. Contemporary came from Ballet, Contemporary Ballet, that’s where it all stems from.” (SYTYCD, Season 7)

I actually wonder if Twyla Tharp could be one of the progenitors of Contemporary. Tharp moved away from her roots in the democratic and pedestrian explorations of the Cunningham-Judson crowd finding them limiting. She began to use the rigors of ballet to bring technical virtuosity and drama to her choreography and added vernacular moves to create its character. Her collaborations with the Joffrey Ballet may mark the beginnings of Contemporary Ballet, a fusion of Classical and Modern dance.

Contemporary choreographers are perhaps drawing from the whole gamut of American dance history: from the structured techniques of Ballet and Graham to the ethnic innovations of Katherine Dunham to the pure movement explorations of the Post-modernists. In many ways, this is in keeping with the primary drive of American Modern dance to innovate, to invent rather than maintain continuity with past traditions. But Contemporary artists now live in a world that is rapidly hybridizing and rather than reject any forms of dance, they seem to be adopting them and including them whenever it serves the choreography.

As my research develops, I will address the distinguishing features of Contemporary choreographies through their content and vocabularies. I hope you will contribute your own thots or experiences with Contemporary dance thus increasing our understanding of its history and place in the current dance culture.

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4 Responses to What is “Contemporary” Dance?

  1. Constance Kreemer says:

    The expansion of dance, be it ballet, contemporary, modern, or otherwise, seems to happen as our world expands. To say that one or two people are responsible for contemporary dance, in my mind, is problematic, because there are too many contributing factors to delineate; to give importance to a few over others, seems to discredit or neglect the multitudinous influences that occur as time passes.
    Yes, we can trace early elements of modern dance to Isadora, Ruth St. Denis, Loie Fuller,, and Mary Wigman, and yes, we can discuss dance history by pointing to the most popular choreographers, but I think, just as the internet and web now exist, that web has expanded so exponentially, that it’s difficult to trace every thread.
    The idea of contemporary dance stemming from ballet is ludicrous.

    • I agree that we can’t draw simple lineages of dancers and styles, but since the term “contemporary” is in wide use, I wanted to know what it referred to. Having been away from the popular dance scene for many years, I had no idea what its history was nor its stylistic character. There seems to be no consensus on the subject except that it evolved from modern. I am curious about its path(s) from 20th century modern.

      I also agree that dance is changing at such a rapid clip that none of our classification systems seem relevant.

  2. Nichelle says:

    So crazy that you are posting about this right now. I have been working on a new article for Dance Advantage on this very subject. Kind of an update to that earlier post you cited above. I was sparked to revisit it after a recent formspring question that asked how to distinguish contemporary from jazz: http://www.formspring.me/danceadvantage/q/875824127

    I’ve written a couple of times about contemporary dance on the blog, but I feel compelled to revisit the subject because of the explosion of the term’s use on SYTYCD. In short though, I tend to use the word contemporary dance to differentiate what is happening NOW as opposed to dance from the past. I don’t however consider contemporary dance a genre in itself. I’ll leave it at that, but look for a continuation of the discussion on DA soon! Thanks for bringing this up – synchronicity from all directions on this timely discussion!

    • I look forward to your blog on jazz and contemporary. I recall one night on SYTYCD that even Nigel couldn’t tell the difference. You may be right about contemporary dance NOT being a distinctive genre, except that the phrase is often used in that manner. Regarding its use on SYTYCD, it does seem to be a very general reference…in fact it all looks like the same genre with characteristics thrown in from jazz, ballroom, or hip hop.

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