Modern dance

Modern dance

A man and a woman performing a modern dance
Modern dance is a dance form that developed in the early twentieth century, partly in reaction to the traditional, more highly technical forms of dance such as ballet. Modern dance in America was pioneered by Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and rose to prominence in the 1950, 1960s, and 1970s with outstanding choreographers such as Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse.

The early modern dance pioneers of the 1920s through the 1940s broke boundaries by not only creating new ways of movement and examining new themes, but by changing the way people thought about dance. But with the onset of growing developments in fields of psychology and sociology in the 1960s, and with exploding trends in both music and art evolving, dance followed suit. Widespread attitudes of rebellion and change influenced a new generation of choreographers who became known as the postmodern generation. Postmodern dance experimented in ways that had more in common with the dada movement in art than the architectural or literary movements of postmodernism.

While some argued that postmodern dancers had lost much of what was valuable to dance, others felt that the 1960s broadened the scope of possibility for dance, and that the rejection of form and content was necessary to strip dance of built up pretension.

Contemporary dancers are taking modern dance to yet another level by actively blending dance forms from all over the world. Using ballet, tap, modern, jazz, and world dance forms to create fusion dances it is proving to be a means of helping transcend boundaries of nationality, gender, and race, and offering a more unifying aspect to the artistic expression of social conscience that was so predominant during 1960s.

Today the term "modern dance" is included in the broader category of twentieth century concert dance which encompasses all dance forms from expressionist to improvisation to dance theater.


Commenting on a conversation he had with founding director of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, Jacques D'Ambroise, founder of the National Dance Institute, said, "…we evolved the following description (of modern dance): 'Dance is an expression of time and space, using the control of movement and gesture to communicate.'"[1]

The term modern dance is usually typified by the theatrical dance which rose to prominence during the middle of the twentieth century, and was often highlighted in both Hollywood screen and Broadway stage productions. While strongly influenced by classical ballet, the movement of modern dance is more fluid and contains dynamic highlights and tricks of jazz dance, including isolations, kicks, and leaps; alternately, many movements are weighted and close to the earth.

Did you know?
Modern dance developed in the twentieth century as a rebellion not only against the constraints of classical ballet but as a way to express contemporary social concerns
The choreography of modern dance is very diverse and generally cannot be categorized as any specific dance style, although many dance styles influence much of the movement. Modern Dance in the twentieth century not only broke free of the constraints of traditional dance forms but provided important social commentary to the upheaval and turmoil of the century's greatest changes.


In the early 1900s a few dancers in Europe started to rebel against the rigid constraints of Classical Ballet. Shedding classical ballet technique, costume, and shoes these early modern dance pioneers practiced free dance. Although the term modern dance was not yet coined, these early precursors contributed, through their independence and originality, to dance as a rising art form whose prestige would be firmly established in America by the 1940s.

Poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère
At the turn of the century, in America, Loie Fuller, was captivating audiences with her burlesque"skirt" dancing. Fuller developed a form of natural movement and improvisation techniques that were used in conjunction with her revolutionary lighting equipment and translucent silk costumes. She patented her apparatus, her methods of stage lighting, and her voluminous silk costumes.

Although Ballroom dance was popular in the early part of the twentieth century, there was no professional dance company, per se, in America. Fuller brought her solo act to the Paris Exposition in 1900, where she was watched by both Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis—two other American dancers who would develop their own highly personal style of free dance, laying the foundation for American modern dance with their choreography and teaching.

Isadora Duncan developed a dance technique influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzscheand a belief that the dance of the ancient Greeks (natural and free) was "the dance of the future." Ruth St. Denis, influenced by the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the Japanese dancer Sado Yacco, developed her own interpretations, or "translations" of Indian culture and mythology. Her performances quickly became popular and she toured extensively while researching East Asianculture and arts. Both dancers held personal expression primary over technique and sought to use natural movements; sometimes Duncan danced with a simple backdrop and no musical accompaniment. The hallmark of their dance style was innovation and experimentation.

Fuller, Duncan, and St. Denis all toured Europe seeking a wider and more accepting audience for their work. Only Ruth St. Denis returned to the United States to continue her work. Isadora Duncan died in Paris, in 1927, and Fuller's work received the most recognition in France, where she became a fixture at the celebrated Folies Bergère[2]

"I believe that dance communicates man’s deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written" (Ted Shawn).

In 1915, Ruth St. Denis founded, along with her husband and dance partner, Ted Shawn, the Denishawn School. More than just a dance school, the troupe toured the vaudeville circuit, provided dancers for D.W. Griffith's burgeoning Hollywood movie industry, and pioneered dance as an art form that could engage an American audience. Not only were male dancers now included in the dance repertoire, but three Denishawn pupils would become important pioneers of modern dance in their own right. They were: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.[3] Graham's 1926 solo performance established modern dance as something completely unique. Meanwhile, Humphrey and Weidman, along with 16 other dancers, made American dance history with the first performance by a modern dance ensemble in 1928.[4] Dance, as an art form, was on its way towards becoming an acceptable part of the vernacular of American entertainment.

In 1929, the three pioneers, Graham, Humphrey, and Weidman (along with Helen Tamiris) formed the Dance Repertory Theatre, in New York City, the first of its kind, in order to pool resources, and find a way to survive financially while continuing to thrive and experiment artistically.[5] The Dance Repertory Theatre proved to be short-lived; however, dance was soon to take hold at the grass roots level.

The major supporter, on the East Coast, was Bennington College of Vermont, spurred on by an educator and ardent supporter of the arts named Martha Hill. Nearby, Ted Shawn, who had separated from Ruth St. Denis, formed the dance troupe and school Jacob's Pillow, at his New York farm. Jacob's Pillow, now located in Massachusetts, host what is billed as "America's longest running dance festival" each summer. Martha Graham, before starting her own groundbreaking school, became a teacher at Bennington College along with Humphrey, Weidman, and German immigrant Hanya Holm, whose expressionistic style of dance was expelled by the Nazi regime at the onset of World War II.[5]

Consequently, modern dance survived the Great Depression and an uncertain start due to its new patronage. By the 1940s, it was becoming an established art form that was no longer merely regarded as an avant-garde aberration.[5]

The founders of modern dance, with Graham clearly the leader, continued to create works based on ancient myths and legends, following a narrative structure. Many of their students, however, began to see dance as a potential agent for change. Disturbed by the rising threat of fascism in Europe, they tried to raise consciousness by dramatizing the economic, social, ethnic, and political crises of their time.

A list of post-modern dance reformers and their accomplishments is as follows:

Hanya Holm—Holm went on to found the New York Wigman School of Dance in 1931 (which became the Hanya Holm Studio in 1936) and introduced the Wigman technique, Rudolf Laban's theories of spatial dynamics, and later her own dance techniques to American modern dance. An accomplished choreographer, she was a founding artist of the first American Dance Festival in Bennington (1934). Holm's dance work Metropolitan Daily was the first modern dance composition to be televised on NBC, and her labanotation score for Kiss Me, Kate (1948), was the first choreography to be copyrighted in the United States. Holm choreographed extensively in the fields of concert dance and musical theater.
Anna Sokolow—a student of Martha Graham and Louis Horst, Sokolow created her own dance company (circa 1930). Presenting dramatic contemporary imagery, Sokolow's compositions were generally abstract; revealing the full spectrum of human experience.
José Limón—In 1946, after studying and performing with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, Limón established his own company with Humphrey as Artistic Director. It was under her mentoring that Limón created his signature dance, The Moor’s Pavane (1949). Limón’s choreographic works and technique remain a strong influence on contemporary dance practice today.
Merce Cunningham—a former ballet student and performer with Martha Graham, he presented his first New York solo concert with John Cage in 1944. Cunningham introduced chance procedures and pure movement to choreography and Cunningham techniqueto the cannon of twentieth century dance techniques. Cunningham added to postmodern dance's oeuvre with his non-linear, non-climactic, non-psychological abstract work.
Erick Hawkins—A student of George Balanchine, Hawkins became a soloist and the first male dancer in Martha Graham's dance company. In 1951, Hawkins, interested in the new field of kinesiology, opened his own school and developed his own technique (the Hawkins technique).
Paul Taylor—a student of the Julliard School of Music and the Connecticut College School of Dance. In 1952, his performance at the American Dance Festival attracted the attention of several major choreographers. Performing in the companies of Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine, he founded the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954. Members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company included: Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Dan Wagoner, and Senta Driver.
Alwin Nikolais—Nikolais use of multimedia in works such as Masks, Props, and Mobiles (1953), Totem (1960), and Count Down(1979) was unmatched by other choreographers. Often, while presenting his dancers in constrictive spaces and costumes with complicated sound and sets, he focused their attention on the physical tasks of overcoming obstacles he placed in their way. Nikolais viewed the dancer not as an artist of self-expression, but as a talent who could investigate the properties of physical space and movement.
Marion Chace began her career as a dancer and choreographer, and studied in New York in the 1920s with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis at the Denishawn School of Dance. While she was primarily a performer, she launched into teaching and found that dance was meeting a far greater need than performance. She continued to teach within schools and hospitals, and learned through trial and error the benefits of dance and expression for people who had certain needs. Her work within the hospitals was gaining renown as professionals watched the positive effects of her work. In the 1940s, she began giving lectures and demonstrations. In the 1960s, she founded a training program for dance therapists at a music school based in New York. In 1966, she assisted in the establishment of the American Dance Therapy Association and was the first president.
The social upheaval and activism of the 1960s spurred artists further to challenge new heights of modern dance technique. They tested the already established modern dance limits established by its forerunners, while celebrating and revealing the experience of black America.[6] Leaders in the field of African-American modern dance became cultural pioneers who reacted against social bigotry and segregation through their art. The list includes:

Katherine Dunham, American dancer, choreographer, songwriter, anthropologist, author, educator and activist
Katherine Dunham—African-American dancer, and anthropologist, originally a ballet dancer, she founded her first company, Ballet Negre, in 1936, and later the Katherine Dunham Dance Company based in Chicago, Illinois. Dunham opened a school in New York (1945) where she taught the Katherine Dunham Technique, a blend of African and Caribbean movement (flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs and polyrhythmic movement) integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.
Pearl Primus—a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist, Primus drew on African and Caribbean dances to create strong dramatic works characterized by large leaps in the air. Primus created works based on Langston Hughes The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1944), and Lewis Allan's Strange Fruit (1945). Her dance company developed into the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute, which teaches her method of blending African-American, Caribbean, and African influences integrated with modern dance and ballet techniques.
Alvin Ailey—a student of Lester Horton (and later Martha Graham) Ailey spent several years working in both concert and theater dance. In 1930 Ailey and a group of young African-American dancers perform as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Ailey drew upon the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration. His most popular and critically acclaimed work is Revelations (1960).
Legacy of modern dance

The person perhaps most credited with the fusion of modern dance and ballet was Twyla Tharpe a student of the Judson Dance Theater. During the 1970s, Tharpe choreographed work for Mikhail Baryshnikov, at the American Ballet Theatre and for the Joffrey Ballet Company. She blended jazz, ballet, tap, and modern into one movement that threaded all forms seamlessly as one entity.[7] What the original pioneers of modern dance were reacting against—the constraints of ballet—had now come full circle in the 1970s, as new cultural heroes, like defector ballet dancer Rudolf Nereyev, were challenging the Cold War status of the former Soviet Union.[7] Working with Tharpe and other choreographers they created a "dance explosion" that riveted American audiences with new experiments in dance.

As the field of modern dance has developed and other dance genres have become more defined, the term, modern dance, has become almost obsolete. Where it once fought for recognition it is now expressed, adapted, and displayed through many genres of dance including jazz, classical, and contemporary. Contemporary dance draws on both modern and postmodern dance as a source of inspiration and combines steps from ballet, jazz, and tap.