Dance in the Contemporary Period

Contemporary dance is a style of expressive dance that combines elements of several dance genres including modernjazzlyrical and classical ballet. Contemporary dancers strive to connect the mind and the body through fluid dance movements. The term “contemporary” is somewhat misleading: it describes a genre that developed during the mid-20th century and is still very popular today.

Contemporary dance stresses versatility and improvisation, unlike the strict, structured nature of ballet. Contemporary dancers focus on floorwork, using gravity to pull them down to the floor. This dance genre is often done in bare feet. Contemporary dance can be performed to many different styles of music.

Historic Roots of Contemporary Dance

Modern and contemporary dance has many elements in common; they are, in a way, branches stemming from the same roots. During the 19th century, theatrical dance performances were synonymous with ballet. Ballet is a formal technique that developed from court dance during the Italian Renaissance and became popular as a result of the support of Catherine de’ Medici. Around the end of the 19th century, several dancers began to break the ballet mold. All focused less on formal techniques, and more on emotional and physical expression. Between about 1900 and 1950, a new dance form emerged which was dubbed “modern dance.” Modern dance is a formalized dance technique with a specific aesthetic. Modern dance is built around breathing, movement, contraction, and release of muscles.

The European influences on American modern dance came from the German Expressionist dancers Mary Wigman (1886-1973) and Hanya Holm (1893-1992). Along with the American forerunners of modern dance, Ruth St Denis (1879-1968), Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), and Lois Fuller (1862-1928), they paved the way for Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), in particular, to develop new styles that sought to embed raw human emotion within their dances, differing from the highly stylized emotional and refined content of ballet.

As these explorations grew through the making of new dance works, so too did new dance training techniques in form. We know these techniques today as the Graham technique and the Limón technique. José Limón (1908-1972) worked closely with Doris Humphrey and further developed her technique after her death.

A large number of modern dance leaders emerged from these companies and were a great influence in moving western forms of dance performance out from under the velvet cloak of ballet. They include American choreographers Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), Paul Taylor (1930-), Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993), Murray Louis (1926-), Erick Hawkins (1909-1994), and Lester Horton (1906-1953).

The Cunningham technique is alive and well today, with its emphasis on line and shape. Alongside the Graham technique, it’s still one of the main modern dance techniques taught worldwide.

Contemporary Technique Challenges Establishment

The big shift in dance technique between ballet and modern dance lay in the use of the torso, body weight, and the use of the floor as a valid surface to perform on with the whole body, not just the feet. These aspects shaped dramatic alterations as to how the dancer’s body was trained.

The torso was used with greater flexibility and the center of gravity of the body was worked lower to the floor through deeper knee bends, giving modern dance styles a more grounded presence than ballet.

But as soon as these modern dance styles became as codified as ballet, the move was on again to challenge the modern dance establishment and discover new territory for the creative impetus of dance as an art form.

What we now know as postmodern dance became the next wave of influence to radically alter the face of dance and inevitably dance training. The very framework of how we viewed and understood dance and the dancer’s body was challenged from all angles and pedestrian movement entered into the realm of movement language for the dancer.

Developments from the New York-based collective Judson Dance Theater, whereby choreographers collaborated and debated the content of dance performance (and its reason for being), led a worldwide movement in the early 60s that embraced all movers as dancers, a position not agreed upon by the whole dance fraternity.

Improvisation was not seen as just a tool to use in the creative process but as a valid structure around which to build live performances. This included contact improvisation (devised by Steve Paxton), in which two or more performers use physical contact as a medium for exploration and performance experiences.

The postmodernists who still have reach and influence today are Americans Trisha Brown, [David Gordon], Yvonne RainerMeredith Monk, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, and Lucinda Childs.

Inevitably, the limited skills of non-trained dancers and the experimental nature of postmodernism worked their way through to a revival of the trained skilled dancers that modern dance had developed and we enter the period from around the mid-1970s that is referred to as “contemporary dance”.

The term is contentious on many levels. The Graham, Cunningham, and Limón training methods were still alive and practiced around the world but returning to modern dance training methods alone was not seen as a progressive pathway forwards. Hence, the word “contemporary” signaled that modern dance styles were being developed with resulting in newer styles becoming more prevalent for training dancers and choreographers in the “present” time.

Postmodernists had, in their desire to not conform to any codified dance techniques, sought out alternative movement forms through which they could experience the connection of mind and body working together. These included Alexander, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, Martial Arts, and yoga to name a few.

This aspect remained attractive to the new generation of artists making dance work with the result that a more eclectic and versatile dancer was being trained, giving choreographers a broader range of skilled performers to work with.

The blurring of boundaries between artforms, the result of artists seeking improved pathways for communication and also desiring to reach new audiences was helped along by advances in technology. Artistic work was having greater exposure on a global level and contemporary dance styles were rapidly being infused with new influences from both street forms of dance, cross-cultural perspectives, and other forms of artistic expression.

This is represented in work by companies such as Anne Teresa de KeersmaekerCloudgate Dance TheatreBatsheva Dance CompanyHofesh Shechter Company, and Chunky Move.

The young artist training to enter the industry as a contemporary dancer today might have a mix of a modern dance style (either Cunningham or Graham), a derivative of a modern dance style, or an eclectic mix of modern dance styles that bears no resemblance to any formal roots, plus training in one or more adjunct styles such as ballet, yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, jazz, Brazilian capoeira, hip-hop, tap, tumbling, martial arts and so on.

It can be much harder to identify the training of contemporary dancers in the 21st century as they have not necessarily been molded by any one style of dance alone. Instead, the new work of an individual choreographer or company will be more likely to house identifiable characteristics of contemporary dance.

Contemporary Dance Today

Today’s contemporary dance is an eclectic mix of styles, with choreographers drawing from ballet, modern, and “post-modern” (structureless) forms of dance. While some contemporary dancers create characters, theatrical events, or stories, others perform entirely new creations as they improvise in their own unique style.

Contemporary Dance Performances

1. “Take Me To Church”

Directed by David LaChapelle and performed by Sergei Poulin to music by Hozier (2015)

2. “Falling Slowly”

Choreographed by Stacey Tookey and performed by Karla Garcia and Jonathan Platero to music by The Swell Season for SYTYCD (2009)

3. “Stay With Me”

Choreographed by Laura Gorenstein Miller and performed by Princess Mecca Romero and Chris Stanley (Helios Dance Theatre) to music by Sam Smith (2015)

4. “Unsteady”

Directed and edited by David Javier, choreographed by Tyce Diorio, and performed by Kent Boyd and Will Johnston to music by the X Ambassadors (2016)

5. “Slip”

Choreographed and performed by Phillip Chbeeb and Renee Kester to music by Elliot Moss (2015)

6. “Don’t Wanna Fight”

Choreographed by Laura Gorenstein Miller and performed by Drea Sobke and Chris Stanley (Helios Dance Theatre) to music by Alabama Shakes (2015)

7. “Bleeding Love”

Choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo and performed by Chelsie Hightower and Mark Kanemura to music by Leona Lewis for SYTYCD (2008)

8. “Let It Go”

Choreographed by Talia Favre and performed by Chaz Buzan and Courtney Schwartz to music by James Bay for Dance On (2015)

9. “Jar of Hearts”

Choreographed by Stacey Tookey and performed by Billy Bell and Kathryn McCormick to music by Christina Perri for SYTYCD (2012)

10. “Love Is . . . “

Choreographed and performed by Keone and Mari Madrid and edited and directed by David Javier to “Stuck with Me” by Timeflies (2015)

11. “Graveyard”

Directed by David Javier, choreographed by Noelle Marsh, and performed by Noelle Marsh and Jade Chynoweth to music by Halsey (2019)

12. “The Bullet”

Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, and performed by Ariana DeBose and the original Broadway cast (2015)

13. “edifice”

Directed, shot, and edited by Rogerio Silva and Choreographed and performed by Carmine De Amicis and Harriet Waghorn to music by Alaskan Tapes (2015)


Directed by Duncan McDowall, choreographed and performed by Dorotea Saykaly, filmed by Christophe Collette, designed by Carla Romagnoli, edited by Sebastien Delporte, and produced by Sach Baylin-Stern to origina music by Simon Marcheterre

15. “Without the Lights”

Directed by Phillip Chbeeb, produced by Mark Holzum and Mitchell Johnson, choreographed by Phillip Chbeeb, and performed by Erica Klein and Phillip Chbeeb to music by Elliot Moss (2016)

16. “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God”

Directed by Ryan Parma, choreographed by Nicole Kirkland, and performed by Nicole Kirkland, Yai Ariza, Donovan Gibbs, Bailey Pina, and Tristan Edpao to music by Halsey (2021)

17. “Freedom”

Directed by MJ Delaney; choreographed by Lamar Lee, Ellenore Scott, Rhea T-W, Gabriella Sibeko, and Heather Liposky; and performed by Delanee Kilgore, Gabriella Castillo, Ellie Kerai, Brielle Olaleye, Annelle Olaleye, Faryat Fahad, Jazmyn Dorsey, Marilyn Espinoza, Payton Ali, and Giana Rice to music by Beyonce (2017)

18. “Greed”

Choreographed and performed by Jade Chynoweth and Josh Killacky and filmed by David Moore to music by Gallant (2016)

19. “Addiction”

Choreographed by Mia Michaels and performed by Kayla Radomski and Kūponohi’ipoi Aweau to music by Sara Bareilles for SYTYCD (2009)

20. “Subjection”

Choreographed by Ruslan Makhov and Galina Pekha and performed by Ekaterina Belyavskaya, Irina Lysenko, Alyona Tkachenko, Yana Abraimova, Galina Pekha, Mariya Cherepantseva, Yana Poznanskaya, Mira Danko to music by The Irrepressibles for D-Side Dance Studio (2015)



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