Updated: Mar 30, 2019
This question. I come across this question often and I'm left summarizing an art form that I've dedicated my life to. It's not easy to explain it in a quick sentence as there is a history and evolution involved, as with any other dance form. As a baseline definition, contemporary dance is a style of expressive dance that combines many elements of a variety of dance genres. These genres can include modern dance, jazz, lyrical, ballet, but I also like to include world dance cultures as well into my own style. Contemporary dance connects the body and the mind through movement. Contemporary is innovative. Contemporary is the truest form of art as your body paints a picture across the stage.
There is a misconception that contemporary dance is an equivalent to interpretive dance, which to me, there is a vast difference between the two. As much as contemporary stresses the versatility and improvisation of our creative minds, it holds the foundation of modern dance as its core and involves technique and form as with any other genre. Pioneers of contemporary dance such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Isadora Duncan broke the strict rules of traditional ballet and allowed dance to become an opportunity to express feelings. Dance became less about performing for others and more about a way to express yourself.
Historic Roots of Contemporary Dance
It's important to recognize as I delve into the history of contemporary dance that the history of modern dance is almost identical to it. Modern and contemporary dance has many elements in common; they are, in a way, branches stemming from the same roots. Starting in the 19th century, theatrical performances of ballet were what was around. 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. They performed ballet for the kings and queens, it was entertainment for the royal families. By the end of the 19th century, dancers began to break the ballet mold. Some of these individuals included Francois Delsarte, Loïe Fuller, and Isadora Duncan, all of whom developed unique styles of movement based on theories of their own. These all focused less on formal techniques, and more on emotional and physical expression. THE MADNESS. No really. It was pretty wild for it's time.
Between about 1900 and 1950, a new dance form emerged which was dubbed "modern dance." Unlike ballet, modern dance is a formalized dance technique with a specific aesthetic. Developed by such innovators as Martha Graham, modern dance is built around breathing, movement, contraction, and release of muscles. Another famous contemporary artist, Alvin Ailey, was a student of Martha Graham's. While he maintained a stronger connection with older techniques, he was the first to introduce African American aesthetics and ideas into contemporary dance. Modern dance is the foundation of contemporary. Contemporary does not exist without modern dance.
During the mid-1940's another student of Graham's, Merce Cunningham, began exploring his own form of dance. Inspired by the radically unique music of John Cage, Cunningham developed an abstract form of dance. Cunningham took dance out of the formal theatrical setting and separated it from the need to express specific stories or ideas. Cunningham introduced the concept that dance movements could be random, and that each performance could be unique. Cunningham, because of his complete break with formal dance techniques, is often referred to as the father of contemporary dance. Thanks, Cunningham you freaking phenomenal human, you.
Today's Contemporary Dance
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.
Naranjo, M. (2010). Contemporary Dance History. Retrieved from https://www.contemporary-dance.org/contemporary-dance-history.html
Next week: Developing your contemporary style