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What is Modern Dance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Modern dance is a form of dance which focuses on the serious expression of inner emotions, using a free-flowing, interpretive style, rather than following the rigid rules characteristic of many dance disciplines. When modern dance first developed at the turn of the 20th century, it was considered extremely radical and iconoclastic; over the years since, modern dance has become more closely mingled with other disciplines like jazz dance, ballet, and tap, and some dancers work in both modern and classical dance styles, drawing techniques from both.

The turn of the 20th century was a generally iconoclastic era, as life in Europe and the United States underwent some dramatic shifts. Industrialism was on the rise, many nations participated in the First World War, and society was rapidly changing. As the rules of life shifted underfoot, some dancers began to feel that the formal rules of classical ballet were too restricting, and they began to develop their own style of free-flowing dance, which came to be known as “modern” dance, to differentiate it from classical ballet.

In a modern dance performance, the dancer is often barefoot, or wearing soft shoes. He or she moves in a free, almost improvisational style, and it is common to see controlled falls and other interesting interplays of body weight and gravity. Unlike ballet, which reaches for the stars with leaps and high kicks, this style of dance often lingers near the ground, especially in a piece heavily influenced by psychology and intense emotional states.

Some famous figures in modern dance include Ruth St Denis, Martha Graham, and Isadora Duncan. Each of these women developed her own distinctive style, choreographing dances which were personal expressions, in addition to performances. Some of the dances choreographed by these women continue to be formed, along with new modern compositions and dances composed by other prominent performers in the field.

At the close of the 20th century, many dance forms began to intermingle, rather than remaining strictly separate. It is not uncommon for a modern dancer to have classical training, and dance sometimes appears in staged productions and films, when the artistic vision behind the piece calls for it. The flowing movements and dramatic appearance of modern dance also sometimes cross over to the ballet stage, bringing a note of seriousness to ballet performance.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon251038 — On Feb 28, 2012

Modern dance is not just for women. Without men, who would lift the women to do all of the "modern" stunts and lifts?

By anon149732 — On Feb 05, 2011

Typically, modern dance was made for anyone, it is not solely designed for the female form and is not simply feminine. Look at the works of Martha Graham, a female pioneer who was constantly critiqued at moving in a masculine way.

Ted Shawn is known as the Father of American dance and created an all male company that rose to fame during modern dance as part of the Denishawn Company.

Modern dance is simply a label to separate it from classical dance, there are many modern dance choreographers and dancers: paxton, mumbai, cunningham, khan, bruce, all of whom are famous for what they do. Modern dance was not made to be judged by gender but by the body and form, not to be critiqued in the ideologies of subject and object, feminine and masculine. It is simply expressing yourself with your body in ways you could not with words or restrictions. I say this as a male dancer and artist.

By anon125002 — On Nov 08, 2010

are there different types of modern dance? or is it a dance style in itself?

By travel28 — On Aug 31, 2010

Typically, modern dance is done by women. Modern dance is similar to ballet and is very soft and feminine. Many men prefer to do other types of dance such as salsa or jazz.

However, some professional modern dance companies have men. Some dances require male dancers who are strong enough to lift female dancers. Women usually still outnumber men though. There will usually only be a few male dancers in every modern dance company.

By ChessPlayer — On Aug 31, 2010

Do men ever do modern dance? Or is it just women?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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