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What is Modern Dance?

Modern Dance is an expressive art form that transcends traditional ballet boundaries, emphasizing creativity and fluidity in movement. It's a reflection of personal storytelling through the body, often pushing against classical conventions to explore the depths of human emotion. How does this dynamic dance speak to you? Join us as we explore the rhythm and soul of Modern Dance.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Opposition to the formal rules of classical ballet gave birth to modern dance.
Opposition to the formal rules of classical ballet gave birth to modern dance.

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.

Modern dance focuses on self-expression with a free-flowing style.
Modern dance focuses on self-expression with a free-flowing style.

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.

Modern dance has influences from many styles including jazz, tap and ballet.
Modern dance has influences from many styles including jazz, tap and ballet.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines modern dance as a genre?

Modern dance is characterized by its versatility and rejection of classical ballet's strict rules. It emphasizes the expression of inner feelings, the use of gravity and body weight to enhance movement, and the freedom for dancers to use their bodies in fluid, natural, and sometimes unconventional ways. Modern dance often tells a story or explores an idea through abstract movements, and it allows for individual interpretation and improvisation, making it a highly personal and expressive art form.

How does modern dance differ from ballet?

Modern dance differs from ballet in several key aspects. Ballet is known for its precise technique, pointed feet, and ethereal quality, often requiring dancers to appear weightless. In contrast, modern dance embraces the natural weight and fall of the body, often using flat feet, bent knees, and grounded movements. Ballet typically follows a set vocabulary and narrative structure, while modern dance encourages experimentation and emotional expression, often breaking away from traditional storytelling.

Who are some pioneers of modern dance?

Pioneers of modern dance include Isadora Duncan, who is often credited with laying the foundation for the genre with her free-spirited performances that emphasized natural movement. Martha Graham further developed the form, introducing the "contract and release" technique and exploring complex emotional themes. Merce Cunningham introduced chance procedures and collaboration with other art forms, while Alvin Ailey incorporated African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel, and blues music into his choreography, broadening the cultural scope of modern dance.

Can modern dance be performed to any type of music?

Yes, modern dance can be performed to a wide variety of music genres. Unlike classical ballet, which often uses orchestral music, modern dance is not limited to any specific type of music. Dancers and choreographers may choose from classical compositions, jazz, electronic, pop, world music, or even silence to accompany their pieces. The choice of music is typically driven by the theme or emotion the choreographer wishes to express.

How has modern dance evolved over time?

Modern dance has evolved significantly since its inception in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially, it served as a rebellion against the rigid constraints of classical ballet, but over time, it has incorporated elements from other dance forms, including jazz, hip-hop, and world dance traditions. Technological advancements have also influenced modern dance, with choreographers incorporating multimedia and digital elements into performances. Today, modern dance continues to be a dynamic and ever-changing art form that reflects contemporary cultural and societal issues.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon251038

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

anon149732

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.

anon125002

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

travel28

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.

ChessPlayer

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

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    • Opposition to the formal rules of classical ballet gave birth to modern dance.
      By: Aleksandr Doodko
      Opposition to the formal rules of classical ballet gave birth to modern dance.
    • Modern dance focuses on self-expression with a free-flowing style.
      By: nanettegrebe
      Modern dance focuses on self-expression with a free-flowing style.
    • Modern dance has influences from many styles including jazz, tap and ballet.
      By: Wisky
      Modern dance has influences from many styles including jazz, tap and ballet.