two girls posing rasing on of their hands up in a yellowish blue background

What is Modern Dance?

All dance styles evolved over time. The earliest codified Western performance style was Classical Ballet beginning in the time of Louis the XIV in France (17th century). Ballet at this time and for several hundred years was based on Fairy Tales, magical creatures and the adventures of Princes and Princesses. Ballet was mostly choreographed to the classical music of the time: Tchaikovsky, Mozart, etc. Ballerina’s were highly trained in very specific movements taught within a strict class structure. The ultimate goal was to dance “en pointe” or in toe shoes- dancers were meant to seem weightless and their movements effortless. Around the end of the nineteenth century, some dancers began to rebel against the uniformity of the Classical Ballet. These pioneers of modern dance (Hanya Holm, Mary Wigman, and others) wanted to get away from fanciful tales and made dances about the common man and woman; their daily struggles and triumphs. To do this they took off their pointe shoes and elaborate costumes and danced in bare feet and simple dresses and not just on stage but outside, or in a salon—wherever the inspiration took them. They danced to new contemporary classical composers like Stravinsky, who defied the previously hallowed laws of music composition, melody and tone. And they danced to folk music or even to no music at all.

These modern dancers experimented with the weight of the body and dynamic qualities such as fall and rebound, spiral, and the influences of breath on movement. They created a whole new vocabulary of movement in a new context. Each new generation of modern dancers took what they liked from their predecessors and changed it according to their own sensibility, and in response to the events of the time in which they were living. Isadora Duncan danced of freedom from tyranny with simple movements taken from the natural movements of children. Ruth St. Denis’ dances had an Eastern flavor. She derived her early movement style from images she had seen while studying Hindu art and philosophy. Martha Graham danced of a woman’s struggle and the struggle of all people making their way in a new land.

Choreographers today continue to redefine what it is to be a modern dancer. When we study Classical Modern Dance in a studio dance class we learn about the original ideas and movements that form a base from which all modern dance grows. We experience the movement styles of the founders of modern dance so that we may then explore what our own “modern” dance might be through improvisation and the exploration of our own creative selves.

For a more detailed exploration of the beginnings of Modern Dance in Europe and America:

My Life (Revised and Updated), May 27, 2013, by Isadora Duncan and Joan Acocella

Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance, Jul 21, 2009, by Janet Mansfield Soares