Modern Dance - History, Styles, Dancers, Trends & Competitions Modern Dance - History, Styles, Dancers, Trends & Competitions

Modern Dance - History, Styles, Dancers, Trends & Competitions

story by Danceus Staff for

Modern dance, as an art form, embodies a dynamic fusion of creativity, expression, and innovation. Rooted in the rejection of traditional ballet techniques and conventions, modern dance emerged in the early 20th century as a platform for choreographers and dancers to explore new forms of movement and self-expression. Characterized by its fluidity, versatility, and emotive storytelling, modern dance transcends boundaries, inviting performers and audiences alike to engage with contemporary themes, social issues, and personal narratives.


Introduction to Modern Dance

Modern dance has many flavors. There are stark differences in the choreography of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, who formed "Denishawn", in dances like "Americaine" or "Radha" and today's Pilobilus, "Symbiosis," or the Swiss dance group, Mummenschanz, whose ultra-dramatic choreography is set to modern dance movements. Compare this to the style of modern dance in the film "Holiday Inn". Note the sequence where Danny Kaye performs a modern dance routine entitled, "Choreography," a kind of spoof on the contrast between modern dance, jazz and tap dance. The movements in "Choreography" are deliberately exaggerated to show the purpose of modern dance steps and movements.


History of Modern Dance

Modern dancers still rely on many ballet steps as part of their choreographed modern dance routines. Modern dance is deeply embedded in ballet syllabus. Historically, modern dance began as free form style lyrical ballet among a community of professional ballet dancers who refused to stop dancing. Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis promoted modern dance as a way of continuing their dance careers, according to their biographies. The first modern dances choreographed required no dancing en pointe or rigid adherence to ballet movement.

A historical study of modern dance makes evident three phases of this dance style:

  • The early period from 1880 to 1923
  • The middle period from 1923 to 1946
  • The late modern dance period from 1946 to the present

Basic Movements of Modern Dance

Basic movements in modern dance are fluidly free style. The ballet step, arabesque, in modern dance is often performed with oblique angles of the body and in turns. Other ballet steps like chasse, pas de bourree and port de bra of the arms are similar ballet movements used in modern dance choreography. Certain modern dance steps are performed on half pointe in bare feet or in modern dance sandals for stage performances.

Modern dance may include chaine tour (chain turns), glissade (gliding steps) that predicate jetes (jumps) and tour de basque (leaps) and front-to-back and side-to-side steps, like the ballet step "chasse". In groups, modern dance choreography often includes geometric shapes like triangular, rectangular and circular shapes using from dancers' bodies. The use of geometric shapes in modern dance helps the audience to "see" the theme and subject of each modern dance routine.

Today, modern dance is often confused with "jazz dance", a dissimilar dance form that also relies on basic ballet movement. It is performed to faster tempos in contemporary music.

The difference between modern dance and jazz is that modern dance choreography is performed with a theme in mind. Jazz dance is free form and employs a variety of sharp turns, hops, jumps, leaps and jazz walks set to an upbeat style of music. In modern dance, these movements are softer and more fluid.

Popular Modern Dance Styles

Modern dance from 1990 to the present has taken a very different approach. Some choreographers and dancers include in modern dance styles hip hop, lyrical, free style and fusion, a combination of dance forms like tap, jazz, modern and ballet.

Since modern dance is usually performed in themed choreographic sequences, it projects a message. Choreography of hip hop, fusion and free style dance tends to be improvisational and without specific themes. Lyrical dance may have a choreographed theme. It leans more toward interpretative dance. Todays modern dance choreography may or may not be interpretative.


Most Famous Dancers

Isadora Duncan is considered the First Lady of Modern Dance. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Hanya Holm and Doris Humphrey are earlier famous modern dancers.

In the US, Martha Graham is revered and honored for her modern dance technique. Among the most famous modern dancers is the statuesque Judith Jamison, whose style is a virtual testament to fluidity, grace and stature in dance.

Other famous dancers include Bela Lewitzky, Lester Horton, Twyla Tarp, Jerome Robbins, Paul Horton, Daniel Nagrin, Pearl Primus and Erick Hawkins.

Twyla Tarp is an actress/dancer/choreographer who is a legend in contemporary modern dance. Others include David Winters, Eliot Feld and Jaime Rogers. Jazz/modern dance choreographers include Bob Fosse, Gus Giordano and Luigi.


Current Trends in Modern Dance

Current trends in modern dance focus less on interpretation and more on acrobatic and aerial movements in groups and with partners. Articulating crossover dance styles by adding words, drama and illusion are the most current trends.

Here are more current trends in Modern dance

  • Incorporation of Technology: Modern dance choreographers are increasingly integrating technology, such as projections, interactive visuals, and digital soundscapes, into their performances. This trend allows for innovative storytelling and multidisciplinary collaborations.
  • Socially Conscious Themes: Many modern dance works are addressing pressing social issues, such as climate change, racial injustice, gender equality, and mental health awareness. Choreographers are using their artistry to spark conversations and promote social change.
  • Hybridization of Styles: Contemporary dance continues to evolve through the fusion of diverse movement vocabularies and techniques. Choreographers are blending elements of classical ballet, hip-hop, jazz, martial arts, and cultural dance forms to create dynamic and eclectic performances.
  • Site-Specific Performances: Site-specific dance, performed in non-traditional spaces such as parks, museums, and urban landscapes, is gaining popularity. These immersive performances often explore the relationship between movement, architecture, and environment.
  • Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Modern dance is increasingly intersecting with other art forms, including theater, visual arts, music, and digital media. Collaborative projects between dancers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of creativity and experimentation.
  • Inclusive and Diverse Representation: There is a growing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion within the modern dance community. Choreographers are actively working to amplify underrepresented voices, celebrate diverse bodies and identities, and create more inclusive spaces for dancers of all backgrounds.
  • Environmental Sustainability: With increasing awareness of environmental issues, some modern dance companies are adopting sustainable practices in their productions. This includes minimizing waste, reducing energy consumption, and exploring eco-friendly materials and production methods.


Competitions USA / International

Modern dance competitions are a relatively new addition to the dance world. In the past, competitions were limited to established dance organizations and dance schools. Today, dance competitions are found in the US and internationally. These include, The Macedonia Open, The USA "Turn it Up" dance competition and annual Korean International Modern Dance competitions.


FAQ about Modern Dance

What is modern dance?

Modern dance is a form of contemporary dance that emerged in the early 20th century as a rejection of traditional ballet techniques and conventions. It prioritizes freedom of movement, self-expression, and experimentation with choreographic styles, often incorporating elements of improvisation, emotion, and personal narrative.

Are there different styles of modern dance?

Yes, modern dance encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques, each with its unique characteristics and influences. Some examples include Graham technique, Cunningham technique, Horton technique, Limón technique, release technique, and post-modern approaches to movement and choreography.

Who invented modern dance?

Modern dance as a distinct art form emerged through the pioneering efforts of several choreographers in the early 20th century. While it's challenging to attribute its invention to a single individual, figures like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Ruth St. Denis played pivotal roles in breaking away from traditional dance forms and laying the groundwork for modern dance as we know it today.

Who are some influential figures in modern dance history?

Modern dance history is rich with influential figures who have shaped the art form. Pioneers such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Ailey made significant contributions to the development of modern dance through their innovative choreography, technique, and artistic vision.

Who is the most famous modern dancer?

The title of the most famous modern dancer is subjective and can vary depending on personal preferences and historical context. However, Martha Graham is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in modern dance history. Her groundbreaking choreography, expressive movement style, and innovative approach to dance technique have left an indelible mark on the art form and continue to inspire dancers and choreographers worldwide.

What are some key characteristics of modern dance?

Modern dance is characterized by its rejection of rigid ballet techniques and embrace of freedom in movement and expression. It often features fluid, organic movements, use of breath and weight, emphasis on individuality and emotion, and incorporation of everyday gestures and pedestrian movements.

How is modern dance different from ballet?

While both modern dance and ballet are forms of dance, they differ in technique, style, and purpose. Modern dance prioritizes freedom of movement, self-expression, and experimentation, whereas ballet emphasizes precise technique, formalized positions, and storytelling through classical repertoire and narrative ballets.

Is modern dance suitable for beginners?

Yes, modern dance can be suitable for beginners, as many classes cater to dancers of all levels, including those with no prior experience. Beginners can expect to learn fundamental movement principles, explore creative expression, and develop strength, flexibility, and coordination through guided exercises and choreography.

What should I wear to a modern dance class?

It's recommended to wear comfortable, form-fitting clothing that allows for ease of movement, such as leggings or dance pants and a fitted top. Most modern dance classes are done barefoot or in socks, but some may require specific dance shoes or footwear depending on the instructor's preference.


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