A Brief History of Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance has been on the scene for over a century now. Learn a little bit about how this popular dance style got its start.

This dynamic, and ever-evolving, dance form has been on the scene for over a century now. We’ve done our best to distill the fascinating history into a few short paragraphs. 

What is Contemporary Dance? 

Contemporary dance is a style of Concert Dance, or dance intended to be performed for an audience, that incorporates elements of Modern Dance, Ballet, Jazz, and Lyrical, as well as various other dance styles. The primary goal of Contemporary Dance is to communicate and express by manipulating the body, time, rhythm, space, gravity, breath, and energy

 In Pride, from Gauthier Dance’s project The Seven Sins, choreographer Marcos Morau uses breathwork and rapidly changing movements as a central element of the piece. 

Contemporary means ‘’ occurring or existing at the same time.’’ One of the defining elements of this dance style is the fusion of multiple dance forms and the constant innovation of movement. Choreographers and dancers might include elements of floorwork, fall/recovery, improvisation, new styles of music, and visual art, and some even incorporate elements of disciplines completely outside of the dance world such as martial arts. 

In Sutra, Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoi incorporates martial arts into his contemporary dance vocabulary.

How Did Contemporary Dance Start? 

First, let’s set the scene. It’s the early 20th century, women are saying goodbye to the rigid corset and hello to loose dresses and exposed ankles, painters are broadening their brushstrokes and blurring their lines in favor of more expressive compositions, composers are rejecting the rules of Music Theory and mixing in new jagged tones and jazz-inspired rhythms, and dancers are saying goodbye to the strict rules of Ballet and hello to a new, freer, style of dance, Modern Dance. Modern dance completely rejected the rigidity and strict narrative of Ballet, opting for free-flowing, expressive, and organic movements. 

We have the revolutionary choreographer, Isadora Duncan ( 1877-1927) to thank for Modern Dance. She was the first dancer/choreographer to experiment with the free-form style of modern dance, opting for bare feet, short Grecian-inspired tunics, and bold new movements that shocked and amazed turn-of-the-century audiences.  Her innovations in the world of dance were the foundational pillars of Contemporary Dance.

By the mid-20th century, it was time to innovate again, and this is where Contemporary Dance comes in. Inspired by the Modern Dance movement, Contemporary Dance took the free-flow style and folded back in a little bit of Ballet technique, a little bit of Jazz and Lyrical dance, and a whole lot of free spirit. It did away with the classical music of both Ballet and Modern Dance and invited in new kinds of acoustic worlds. Unlike Modern Dance, Contemporary Dance isn’t held to a stylistic standard, rather, it’s defined by a general lack of stylistic standards, always changing and evolving

In Pixel, choreographer Mourad Merzoiki incorporates electronic music, interactive digital projections, roller skates, and even an acrobatic Cyr Wheel to craft a completely unique dance piece. 

Foundational Figures of Contemporary Dance. 


Martha Graham (1894 – 1991)

Martha Graham is widely regarded as the ‘’Mother of Contemporary Dance’’. She developed the ‘’Graham Technique’’ which is widely considered to be the cornerstone of American Modern Dance. The technique focuses on contraction and release, and working with the breath to inspire movement. She then went on to open the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1926, where many of the leading Contemporary choreographers studied.

Merce Cunningham (1919 – 2009)

Many credit Merce Cunningham with formally conceptualizing Contemporary Dance, earning him the reputation as the ‘’Father of Contemporary Dance’’. He was a student of famed Modern Dancer Martha Graham. He expanded on her methodology and refined the idea of Contemporary Dance as something separate from both Ballet and Modern Dance. He is credited with introducing the concept that Contemporary Dance should always be evolving and changing. He went on to found his own dance company where he taught ‘’The Cunningham Technique’’, a contemporary dance technique that emphasizes spatial awareness, rhythmic accuracy, and torso/leg work. 


What does Contemporary Dance look like today? 

By now you will have learned that the best part of Contemporary Dance is its ability to incorporate new and emerging dance styles. Today, choreographers are continuing to challenge the boundaries of dance in mind-blowing ways like incorporating state-of-the-art electronic and digital elements and inventing and testing new hybrid dance styles. It has never been more exciting to be a part of the world of dance.

For example, choreographer Akram Khan frequently incorporates Kathak, a form of Indian Classical Dance, into his creations. Crystal Pite has invented an entirely new contemporary vocabulary by fusing dance with traditional theater, and choreographers Mourad Merzouki and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoi frequently collaborate with visual artists and contemporary musicians in their dance pieces. We can’t wait to see what these creative choreographers will come up with next. 

Want to learn more about these Contemporary choreographers? Check out our article 5 Contemporary Choreographers You Should Know.  

Caption: In Betroffenheit, choreographer Crystal Pite has infused elements of traditional theater into her contemporary dance creation. 

If you want to experience the best Contemporary Dance has to offer, you’ve come to the right place. You can stream full productions of renowned choreographers and dancers anytime on Marquee TV.  


Dive into the world of Contemporary Dance

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