Define Modern Dance Essay



I’ll use the expression modern dance history to talk about figures, choreographic productions and related facts occurred in western culture between the end of the XIX century and the 1950s.

Though, I’d like to remind that the word modern, applied to arts, has a wide and controversial meaning. So, for the purpose of this page I’ll use it as a chronological reference. A discussion about the ‘modernity’ of the following dance figures or pieces might come in other pages.

According to historians, modern dance has two main birthplaces: Europe (Germany specifically) and the United States of America. Although it evolves as a concert dance form, it has no direct roots in any ballet companies, schools or artists. Modern dance emerges as a consequence of its time, alone and outside any academic institution.

If you prefer to browse through a handy summary of modern dance history (with the names of figures who were or are significant for it), go to our general dance history page. The following is an expanded version of that part.

François Delsarte (1811 - 1871, France).

He is considered as a precursor by modern dance history because he invents a theory about the relationship between human movement and feelings.

His researches lead him to conclude that to each emotion or mental image corresponds a movement, or at least an attempt of it. That idea boosts one of the main ideological components of modern dance at its origins: “feelings and their intensity are the cause of movement and its quality”.

In other words, the source of dance lies inside the dancer, and not outside, in codified gestures, like classical dance would propose.

These are some of Delsarte’s renowned contributions:

- Elaboration of a new code of gestures, completely independent from the classical dance tradition.

- Study and codification of a logic system about the relationships between the different parts of the body, different types of movement and different human feelings.

- Creation of a system for the study, analysis and teaching of movement.

- Invention of the fundamental notion of the gesture’s expressiveness.

- Introduction of the importance of the upper body (trunk, arms, face) as the main vehicle of expression of the soul.

Delsarte’s student Steele MacKay spreads his theory and teachings in the United States of America, leaving his influence in several figures of modern dance history like Ruth Saint Denis, Ted Shawn and Isadora Duncan, among others.

Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865 - 1950, Austria - Switzerland).

Dalcroze is a pianist and conductor, important for modern dance history because he invents a new approach to movement called “Rhythmics” or “Eurhythmics”.

Its main contribution is the work over the relationship between music and movement. According to him, body expresses a degree of ‘musicality’ that can be studied and taught.

He doesn’t plan to apply his discoveries to dancers, but to musicians. Though, his teaching method has such a great success throughout Europe that it reaches some of the most important modern dance figures of the time, like V. Nijinsky (through Marie Rambert), Mary Wigman and Rudolph Laban .

These are some of Dalcroze’s renowned contributions:

- Introduction of a notion of relationship between movement and rhythm.

- Creation of an original educational method through movement.

- Some of his essential principles: body blockages are caused by rhythmic blockages; relaxation is indispensable to achieve a right movement; breathing is crucial to obtain relaxation and is the fundamental rhythmic movement.

Dalcroze’s method also leaves its influence in the United States of America thanks to Mary Wigman’s student Hanya Holm.

Rudolph Laban (1879 – 1958, Hungary - U.K.).

Rudolph Laban and his system for analysing and recording movement: Kynetography (Labanotation)

Among the figures that produce the ideological and conceptual basis of modern dance, Rudolph Laban is considered by modern dance history as one of the most productive of them.

As a choreographer, dancer, teacher and researcher, he achieves to spread his name and ideas widely: first through Europe, then to the United States and nowadays around the whole world.

Laban publishes several articles and renowned books that are still important references for dance theory and history. Some of his titles are: “Choreutics”, “The Mastery of Movement” and “Educational Modern Dance”.

He also invents labanotation (or kynetography Laban), which is the most complete and effective system for analyzing and writing movement, created till the time. By this, he opens a completely new theoretical frame for movement shape and quality analysis.

His thought includes the idea that human movement is the seat of life and that it expresses the social state of being. Therefore, dance would be a need of communitarian experience. He believes that educating individuals and groups by the means of movement can correct society.

He influences Mary Wigman, Kurt Joos, Albert Knust and almost all European modern dancers from the period between the two wars.

Anne Hutchinson Guest brings his movement notation system to the United States of America, where it is taught nowadays almost in every institution for high level dance education.

If you are interested in his ideas, you should read some of his books. Here are two examples:

(Disclosure: This website contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. There’s no additional cost to you.)

Mary Wigman (1886 – 1973 Germany):

From a choreographic and aesthetical production perspective, Mary Wigman is, after Laban, the first relevant, European, modern dance figure reported by modern dance history.

Mary Wigman's Hexentanz

As much as Laban, Dalcroze and Delsarte (who are of an extreme importance mainly because of their ideological contributions), Wigman develops her own understanding of dance and traduces it in a significant amount of choreographic pieces.

She opposes radically to classical dance values and methods, in a search for a dance that would accomplish an expressive function of the dancer’s soul.

Concerned about a close relationship between spirituality and movement, she defends the idea of invisible forces that would give life to dance. From this point of view, she somehow recreates the cathartic function attributed to dance in ancient societies.

Her choreographic work and thought are considered as part of the artistic trend called German expressionism. Her practice itself receives the name of dance of expression or “Ausdrückstanz” (in German).

Wigman’s dance pieces are remembered for their tragic, dark character and are described as introspective dances that reveal vibrant, vital, excited and passionate inner states of being.

She engages herself into the social and educational mission of the choreographer, by creating several schools and transmitting her artistic legacy. Among her renowned students are Hanya Holm, Harald Kreutzberg, Gret Paluca and Kurt Joos.

According to modern dance history, she influences the whole German dance trend during the 1920s and 1930s and what follows after the war.

Her ideas are brought to the United States of America by Hanya Holm, who passes the heritage to figures like A. Nikolaïs.

Still, in other countries like France, for example, Wigman heirs are responsible for the respective modern dance trends at the time.

Her most famous piece is called “Hexentanz” (The Witch).

Loïe Fuller (1862 – 1928, United States of America)

Loïe Fuller is not actually regarded by modern dance history as a dancer or a choreographer. This is because her main concern is not dance, or movement itself, as it is for the whole rest of following modern dancers.

Though, she is the author of hundreds of scenic art pieces in which she displays innovative experiments mixing lightning, scenic elements (big tissues) and dance.

Initiated in her native country within music-hall shows, Fuller has no knowledge of classical dance traditions, as any of the American pioneers of modern dance. Though, she has a great success in Europe (especially in Paris) where she causes a big influence and marks the artistic trends and vogue of the time.

Other than being the very first modern dancer in chronological terms (she is already successful at a time when Rudolph Laban is just studying), she is acknowledged by modern dance history because of her great contribution in new possibilities of scenic illusion, thanks to the use of the development of electricity.

Isadora Duncan (1878 - 1927, U.S.A. - France)

Isadora Duncan Photos Courtesy of the Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc., New York, New York.

Modern dance history describes Isadora as an emblematic figure of freedom. This is not only because she refuses to follow academic dance education but because she has the courage to break dance traditions and social codes with her aesthetical propositions.

She constructs her thought by studying other artistic languages or ideological fields (like poetry, sculpture, music and philosophy). Some when she says: “my dance teachers are J.J.Rousseau, Walt Whitman, and Nietzche”.

For Isadora, dance is the expression of her personal life. She has an inclination for nature, what makes her create dances around related subjects like the waves, clouds, the wind and trees.

A remarked feature of her creative method is the use of classical music as a source of inspiration, from which she translates its emotions. Also, her dance is influenced by the figures drawn on ancient Greek vessels.

Europe receives her charismatic personality, transparent tunic, bare foot and even scandals as a new lyrical message.

For modern dance history, she points the birth of another type of dance, which would be the consequence of an interior movement of the dancer. At the same time, she carries a new spirit of liberation from conventions and an idea of dance as an expression of the divinity inside every human being.

Her contribution is not considered so much in terms of a dancing technique but mostly because of what her work means for the cultural process of opening minds. Though, from the artistic perspective she acts according to some of the considered ‘modern dance principles’ like inventing a gestural language and adapting movement to the artistic project.

But as I mentioned above, she is remembered mainly because of her boosting to the liberation of conventional codes that restrict body (and especially feminine body) as a general fact in society. Although she dedicates herself to teaching as well and founds numerous schools in Europe, she doesn’t leave significant heirs.

Ruth Saint Denis (1877 - 1968, U.S.A.)

Ruth Saint Denis

Ruth Saint Denis performs and is renowned mainly in the United States. She is the daughter of one of the first women admitted to University, feminist and amateur of alternative curative methods.

She grows within an ideological ambience of oriental religions, which will be reflected later in her choreographic productions.

Initiated in Delsarte’s method, her mother pushes her to the scene in order to sustain their family. This is how she starts creating music-halls in New-York.

She has her own philosophical and mystical discourse too. The female dancer is for her like a priestess, which contrasts with the prejudice of the time of the dancer as a woman of little virtue. Dance is for Saint-Denis a mean for reunification with the divine.

Being famous already, she meets Ted Shawn, who will be her partner in the foundation of the DENISHAWN School and company (Los Angeles 1915 - 1931). They are known by modern dance history for combining the passionate charisma of Saint-Denis with the technical rigor of Shawn.

The school offers an eclectic program of courses, from yoga and oriental religions to Delsarte’s and Dalcroze’s methods.

Some of its teachers are Lester Horton, Michio Ito and Louis Horst.

Important figures in modern dance history like Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham, also go through their teachings and participate in their company’s activities.

The Denishawn choreographic pieces are remembered for its big and spectacular formats, with elaborated sceneries and development of what Saint-Denis calls “musical visualizations”. These are danced representations of music and are considered as a first attempt of choreographic abstraction.

In 1931 the school dissolves and the couple splits up.

Ted Shawn (1891- 1972, U.S.A.)

After the dissolution of the Denishawn School and company, Ted Shawn continues his choreographic career independently.

With the first company composed by men only in modern dance history, he makes tours around the United States (visiting universities specially) and attracts a lot of young people from a high intellectual level.

Shawn, inspired in Delsarte, fights the prejudice of the effeminate performer. He educates boys that look like muscular athletes, creating an image of a masculine and sportive dancer. He also founds a choreographic center: The Jacob´s Pillow (Massachusetts), which is still an important place for dance as much for its studying offers as for its dance festival.

Doris Humphrey (1895 - 1958, U.S.A.)

"Air for G string". Choreography: Doris Humphrey.

Doris Humphrey joins the Denishawn in 1917, being already a dance teacher in her native province.

She works for Saint Denis as a teacher and dancer, participating in the company tours around America and Asia till 1926.

It is within the Denishawn that Humphrey associates with the dancer Charles Weidman and the pianist Pauline Lawrence to create the Humphrey - Weidman company (1927 – 1944).

Their artistic productions are known in modern dance history as being contrastingly sober beside the commercial and spectacular wastes of Saint Denis. Also, Charles Weidman contributes to them with a theatrical sense and works using pantomime and humor.

Humphrey develops an original dancing technique by observing the relationship between gravity and human body. She establishes a main physical principle for dance: Fall and Recovery. This notion is resumed in her famous sentence: “Movement is situated on a tended arc between two deaths”: which are vertical balance and horizontal balance.

Other than being the first in modern dance history to chose imbalance as the base for her movement, she also teaches extremely important notions (as technical means) like weight, rebound, suspension and the importance of breath.

Another one of her contributions is the understanding of the dancing group as a main choreographic entity and not only as a mass counterpointing the soloist.

The piece called “Water study” (1928) is an example of her group experiments.

She is concerned about other questions too, like American subjects (reflected in choreographies like “The Shakers” (1931) or the violence of the world (“Theater piece” (1936) or “Inquest” (1944).

She leaves a written patrimony about her choreographic thought in a book entitled “The art of making dances”.

In 1944, she stops dancing because of arthritis and José Limón, who has joined the Humphrey-Weidman group since 1928, creates a new company for which she continues working as an artistic director.

Jose Limon (José Arcadio Limón, 1908 - 1972, Mexico - U.S.A.)

"The Traitor". Choreography: Jose Limon

Limón is responsible for spreading Humphrey’s technique in Europe. Although that knowledge is renowned under his name, he always insists that she is the innovator and he is a continuator.

Though, he has his own choreographic concerns and works over social themes. He expresses a consciousness of the precarious state of humanity in dramatic and tragic pieces about subjects from his natal historical context.

Some examples of that are his pieces “La Malinche” (1949), “Carlota” (1972) and “The Pavane of the Moor” (1949).

Limón is strongly affected the first time he sees a dancing piece (by Harald Kreutzberg and Ivonne Georgia). His impression is an example of what the entire western world is still discovering at the time: "what I witnessed, simply and irreversibly changed my life. I saw dance as a vision of indescribable power. A man can dance with dignity and torrential majesty; dance as Michelangelo’s visions or Bach’s music”.

According to modern dance history, his debut in 1947 owns him the title of the finest male dancer of the moment by the New York Times. He was successful in Europe too, with a first performance in Paris in 1950.

Martha Graham (1894 - 1991, U.S.A.)

Graham enters the Denishawn school and company in 1916 and becomes the most famous and monumental pupil of this seedbed.

In 1923 she moves to New York, where she participates in music halls and musical comedies, at the same time she works on dancing solos at her studio.

She develops her own training technique, which will reach a world-wide success till the present time. These are some of its principles:

- Focus on the ‘center’ of the body.

- Coordination between breathing and movement.

- Relationship with the floor.

-Alternation between two movement intentions: “contraction and release”.

She creates an original choreographic vocabulary focused on the movement of the pelvis for she privileges this part of the body as the zone of expression of the feminine libido. Her company is exclusively for women until 1938.

She also proclaims the idea that dance works over an ancestral memory.

Graham remains active as a choreographer during a process that lasts over sixty years. Some aesthetical cycles have been determined by modern dance history in order to understande her work: the oriental cycle, the primitive, the American and the Greek.

Her work also reflects the American ambience of the moment trough her search for an identity, exaltation of the pioneer spirit, fight against the Puritanism and follow of a mystical spirituality.

Figures like Louis Horst, Erick Hawkins, Isamu Noguchi and composers like Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber are among her collaborators.

These are the titles of some of her pieces:

Primitive period:

- “Lamentation” (1930)

- “Primitive Mysteries” (1931). Subject: finding the universal soul by imitating the steps from the ancestors).

American period:

- “Frontier” (1935)

- “Appalachian Spring” (1944)

- “American Document” (1938)

Greek period: (inventory of archetypes from a matriarchal society).

- “Hérodiade” (1944)

- “Cave of the heart” (1946). Subject: Medea’s myth.

- “Night Journey” (1947). Subject: Jocasta ‘s myth.

- “Clytemnestra” (1958)

- “Judith (1950)”

- “Errand into the Maze” (1947). Subject: Arianne and the minotaur’s myth.

In 1984, Martha Graham’s company is worldwide recognized till the point of being invited by Rudolph Nureyev to the Paris Opera.

She dies in New York in 1991, leaving the Martha Graham Dance Company and School as a legacy which remains as an invaluable patrimony for the dancers community.

Alvin Ailey (1931 - 1989, U.S.A.)

Alvin Ailey has an important place in modern dance history for being the choreographer of the ‘black modern dance’.

He goes trough a variety of teachings and influences (like the one of Katherine Dunham, Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham), before creating his own company: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

What distinguishes his work the most is the focus on the expression of black people’s feelings.

"Revelations". Choreography: Alvin Ailey.

His most famous choreography is entitled “Revelations” (1960) and is considered a master piece that gathers his most renowned aesthetical choices: lyricism, use of ethnic music (negro spirituals in the case), Graham technique, spirituality and revolutionary ambience.

Although he is recognized for his artistic emphasis in black culture aspects, over the time he opens his company to multiethnic possibilities. According to modern dance history, this happens before he establishes an own choreographic language.

Still, he’ll stay as the one who opened the way and place for multiethnic dances and new choreographers, through the opening of his school and company for others to create within.

Alwin Nikolaïs (1910 – 1993, U.S.A.)

Designer, composer and choreographer, Nikolaïs is one of the most popular modern dance artists around the world.

He has a marked preference for abstraction, which he expresses from the very beginning of his choreographic career: “I had to redefine dance and I concluded that the essence of this art is movement, just as color is for the painter and the three dimensions are for the sculptor”.

“Tensile Involvement”. Choreography: Alvin Nikolaïs.

He creates dance pieces where human body’s movement has the same relevance as optical effects, collages, paintings, projections and all kind of accessories for scenic illusions.

These are some of his main aesthetic choices:

- Any point in the body can be the ‘center for movement’.

- Human being is just another element among the moving universe.

- Body undergoes several metamorphoses and becomes abstract: accessories, tissues, big sticks…

- Improvisation and composition are part of the technical training. The student is responsible of exploring his own body.

Nikolaïs is also renowned in modern dance history for his amazing teaching skills, which focus on developing the capacity of invention in his students. Some important figures formed at his company are Murray Louis, Carolyn Carlson and Susan Buirge.

You can see there’s a lot to tell about modern dance history and that its figures many. I’ve done the summary above just to help you make yourself one first general idea.

I’ll be expanding this modern dance history section in the future, by providing more information about specific topics belonging to it. Also, in case you are searching for this, I’ll try to include some less mentioned figures of the story like Kurt Joos, Harald Kreutzberg, Oskar Schlemmer, Louis Falco, Lester Horton, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Murray Louis…

Related threads:

British Modern Dance between 1965 and 1985

Lester Horton and cultural plurality

Kurt Jooss and Mary Wigman

Dvd on modern dance history: trailblazers of modern dance

There are many other interesting threads in Just visit our forum for dance questions about theory and history and browse!

Also, if there’s any information about modern dance history you didn’t find here and would like to have, ask me through the form at our page for dance questions. I’ll do my best to provide it for you!

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For the debut album by Pere Ubu, see The Modern Dance.

Main articles: Dance and Concert dance

Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance, primarily arising out of Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of, or rebellion against classical ballet. Socioeconomic and cultural factors also contributed to its development. In the late 19th century, dance artists such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, and Loie Fuller were pioneering new forms and practices in what is now called aesthetic or free dance for performance. These dancers disregarded ballet's strict movement vocabulary, the particular, limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet, and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement.

Throughout the 20th century, sociopolitical concerns, major historical events, and the development of other art forms contributed to the continued development of modernist dance in the United States and Germany. Moving into the 1960s, new ideas about dance began to emerge, as a response to earlier dance forms and to social changes. Eventually, postmodern dance artists would reject the formalism of modern dance, and include elements such as performance art, contact improvisation, release technique, and improvisation.[1]

American modern dance can be divided (roughly) into three periods or eras. In the Early Modern period (c. 1880–1923), characterized by the work of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Eleanor King, artistic practice changed radically, but clearly distinct modern dance techniques had not yet emerged. In the Central Modern period (c. 1923–1946), choreographers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, Charles Weidman, and Lester Horton sought to develop distinctively American movement styles and vocabularies, and developed clearly defined and recognizable dance training systems. In the Late Modern period (c. 1946–1957), José Limón, Pearl Primus, Merce Cunningham, Talley Beatty, Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Anna Halprin, Paul Taylor introduced clear abstractionism and avant-garde movements, and paved the way for postmodern dance.[2]

Modern dance has evolved with each subsequent generation of participating artists. Artistic content has morphed and shifted from one choreographer to another, as have styles and techniques. Artists such as Graham and Horton developed techniques in the Central Modern Period that are still taught worldwide, and numerous other types of modern dance exist today.


Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of, or rebellion against classical ballet, although historians have suggested that socioeconomic changes in both the United States and Europe helped to initiate shifts in the dance world. In America, increasing industrialization, the rise of a middle class (which had more disposable income and free time), and the decline of Victorian social strictures led to, among other changes, a new interest in health and physical fitness.[3] "It was in this atmosphere that a 'new dance' was emerging as much from a rejection of social structures as from a dissatisfaction with ballet."[4] During that same period, "the champions of physical education helped to prepare the way for modern dance, and gymnastic exercises served as technical starting points for young women who longed to dance."[5]Women's colleges began offering "aesthetic dance" courses by the end of the 1880s.[6]Emil Rath, who wrote at length about this emerging artform at the time stated,

"Music and rhythmic bodily movement are twin sisters of art, as they have come into existence we see in the artistic work of Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, and others the use of a form of dancing which strives to portray in movements what the music master expresses in his compositions—interpretative dancing."[7]

Free dance[edit]

Main article: Free dance

  • 1877: Isadora Duncan was a predecessor of modern dance with her stress on the center or torso, bare feet, loose hair, free-flowing costumes, and incorporation of humor into emotional expression. She was inspired by classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature, natural forces, and new American athleticism such as skipping, running, jumping, leaping, and abrupt movements. She thought that ballet was ugly and meaningless gymnastics. Although she returned to the United States at various points in her life, her work was not very well received there. She returned to Europe and died in Nice in 1927.
  • 1891: Loie Fuller (a burlesque skirt dancer) began experimenting with the effect that gas lighting had on her silk costumes. 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 and methods of stage lighting that included the use of coloured gels and burning chemicals for luminescence, and also patented her voluminous silk stage costumes.
  • 1905: Ruth St. Denis, influenced by the actress Sarah Bernhardt and Japanese dancer Sada Yacco, developed her translations of Indian culture and mythology. Her performances quickly became popular and she toured extensively while researching Oriental culture and arts.

Expressionist and early modern dance in Europe[edit]

See also: Expressionist dance and Ausdruckstanz

In Europe, Mary Wigman, Francois Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (Eurhythmics), and Rudolf Laban developed theories of human movement and expression, and methods of instruction that led to the development of European modern and Expressionist dance. Other pioneers included Kurt Jooss (Ausdruckstanz) and Harald Kreutzberg.

Radical dance[edit]

Disturbed by the Great Depression and the rising threat of fascism in Europe, the radical dancers tried to raise consciousness by dramatizing the economic, social, ethnic and political crises of their time.

  • Hanya Holm, a student of Mary Wigman and instructor at the Wigman School in Dresden, founded the New York Wigman School of Dance in 1931 (which became the Hanya Holm Studio in 1936) introducing Wigman technique, 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.[8]
  • 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, often revealing the full spectrum of human experience reflecting the tension and alienation of the time and the truth of human movement.
  • 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 mentorship 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.[9]
  • Merce Cunningham—A former ballet student and performer with Martha Graham, he presented his first New York solo concert with John Cage in 1944. Influenced by Cage and embracing modernistideology using postmodern processes, Cunningham introduced chance procedures and pure movement to choreography and Cunningham technique to the cannon of 20th-century dance techniques. Cunningham set the seeds for postmodern dance with his non-linear, non-climactic, non-psychological abstract work. In these works each element is in and of itself expressive, and the observer (in large part) determines what it communicates.
  • 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 (Hawkins technique) a forerunner of most somatic dance techniques.
  • Paul Taylor—A student of the Juilliard 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 (in that order), he founded the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954. The use of everyday gestures and modernistideology is characteristic of his choreography. Former members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company included Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Dan Wagoner, and Senta Driver.
  • Alwin Nikolais—A student of Hanya Holm. Nikolais's use of multimedia in works such as Masks, Props, and Mobiles (1953), Totem (1960), and Count Down (1979) was unmatched by other choreographers. Often 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.

In the United States[edit]

Main article: Modern dance in the United States

Early modern dance in America[edit]

In 1915, Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn school and dance company with her husband Ted Shawn.[10] St. Denis was responsible for most of the creative work, and Shawn was responsible for teaching technique and composition.[citation needed]Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman were all pupils at the school and members of the dance company. Seeking a wider and more accepting audience for their work, Duncan, Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis all toured Europe. Fuller's work also received little support outside Europe. St. Denis returned to the United States to continue her work.

Martha Graham is often regarded as the founding mother of modern 20th-century concert dance.[11] Graham viewed ballet as too one-sided: European, imperialistic, and un-American.[12] She became a student at the Denishawn school in 1916 and then moved to New York City in 1923, where she performed in musical comedies, music halls, and worked on her own choreography.[13] Graham developed her own dance technique, Graham technique, that hinged on concepts of contraction and release.[11] In Graham's teachings, she wanted her students to "Feel". To "Feel", means having a heightened sense of awareness of being grounded to the floor while, at the same time, feeling the energy throughout your entire body, extending it to the audience.[14] Her principal contributions to dance are the focus of the ‘center’ of the body (as contrast to ballet's emphasis on limbs), coordination between breathing and movement, and a dancer’s relationship with the floor.[13]

After shedding the techniques and compositional methods of their teachers the early modern dancers developed their own methods and ideologies and dance techniques that became the foundation for modern dance practice:

  • Martha Graham and Louis Horst
  • Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman
  • Helen Tamiris—originally trained in free movement (Irene Lewisohn) and ballet (Michel Fokine) Tamiris studied briefly with Isadora Duncan but disliked her emphasis on personal expression and lyrical movement. Tamiris believed that each dance must create its own expressive means and as such did not develop an individual style or technique. As a choreographer Tamiris made works based on American themes working in both concert dance and musical theatre.
  • Lester Horton—choosing to work in California (3,000 miles away from New York, the center of modern dance), Horton developed his own approach that incorporated diverse elements including Native American dances and modern jazz. Horton's dance technique (Lester Horton Technique) emphasises a whole-body approach including flexibility, strength, coordination, and body awareness to allow freedom of expression.


In 1927, newspapers regularly began assigning dance critics, such as Walter Terry, and Edwin Denby, who approached performances from the viewpoint of a movement specialist rather than as a reviewer of music or drama. Educators accepted modern dance into college and university curricula, first as a part of physical education, then as performing art. Many college teachers were trained at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance, which was established at Bennington College in 1934.

Of the Bennington program, Agnes de Mille wrote, "...there was a fine commingling of all kinds of artists, musicians, and designers, and secondly, because all those responsible for booking the college concert series across the continent were assembled there. ... free from the limiting strictures of the three big monopolistic managements, who pressed for preference of their European clients. As a consequence, for the first time American dancers were hired to tour America nationwide, and this marked the beginning of their solvency." (de Mille, 1991, p. 20 30

African American modern dance[edit]

See also: African American dance

The development of modern dance embraced the contributions of African American dance artists regardless of whether they made pure modern dance works or blended modern dance with African and Caribbean influences.

  • Katherine Dunham—An 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. In 1945, Dunham opened a school in New York where she taught Katherine Dunham Technique, a blend of African and Caribbean movement (flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis, 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 often based her dances on the work of black writers and on racial and African-American issues. Primus created works based on Langston HughesThe Negro Speaks of Rivers (1944), and Lewis Allan'sStrange 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 with modern dance and ballet techniques.
  • Alvin Ailey—A student of Lester Horton, Bella Lewitzky, and later Martha Graham, Ailey spent several years working in both concert and theater dance. In 1958, Ailey and a group of young African-American dancers performed as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Ailey drew upon his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration. His most popular and critically acclaimed work is Revelations (1960).

Legacy of modern dance[edit]

The legacy of modern dance can be seen in lineage of 20th-century concert dance forms. Although often producing divergent dance forms, many seminal dance artists share a common heritage that can be traced back to free dance.

Postmodern dance[edit]

Main article: Postmodern dance

Postmodern dance developed in the 1960s in United States when society questioned truths and ideologies in politics and art. This period was marked by social and culturalexperimentation in the arts. Choreographers no longer created specific 'schools' or 'styles'. The influences from different periods of dance became more vague and fragmented.[11] It is very common for postmodern dance to be performed to little or no music at all.

Contemporary dance[edit]

Main article: Contemporary dance

Contemporary dance emerged in the 1950s as the dance form that is combining the modern dance elements and the classical ballet elements.[15] It can use elements from non-Western dance cultures, such as African dancing with bent knees as a characteristic trait, and Butoh, Japanese contemporary dancing that developed in the 1950s.[11][16] It is also derived from modern European themes like poetic and everyday elements, broken lines, nonlinear movements, and repetition. Many contemporary dancers are trained daily in classical ballet to keep up with the technicality of the choreography given. These dancers tend to follow ideas of efficient bodily movement, taking up space, and attention to detail. Contemporary dance today includes both concert and commercial dance because of the lines being blurred by pop culture and television shows. According to Treva Bedinghaus,"Modern dancers use dancing to express their innermost emotions, often to get closer to their inner-selves. Before attempting to choreograph a routine, the modern dancer decides which emotions to try to convey to the audience. Many modern dancers choose a subject near and dear to their hearts, such as a lost love or a personal failure. The dancer will choose music that relates to the story they wish to tell, or choose to use no music at all, and then choose a costume to reflect their chosen emotions."[17]

Teachers and their students[edit]

This list illustrates some important teacher-student relationships in modern dance.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Scheff, Helene; Marty Sprague; Susan McGreevy-Nichols (2010). Exploring dance forms and styles: a guide to concert, world, social, and historical dance. Human Kinetics. p. 87. ISBN 0-7360-8023-6. 
  2. ^Legg, Joshua (2011). Introduction to Modern Dance Techniques. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company. p. xviii. ISBN 978-0-87127-3253. 
  3. ^Kurth, P. (2001). Isadora: A sensational life. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. pp. 28–29. 
  4. ^Legg, Joshua (2011). Introduction to Modern Dance Techniques. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-87127-3253. 
  5. ^Anderson, Jack (1997). Art Without Boundaries: The world of modern dance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. 8. 
  6. ^McPherson, Elizabeth (2008). The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995. Lewisto n: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 5. 
  7. ^Rath, Emil (1914). Aesthetic Dancing. New York: A. S. Barnes Company. p. v-vi. 
  8. ^Ware, Susan. "Notable American Women". Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 305-306.
  9. ^Siegel, Marcia B. "The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance". University of California Press, 1979, p. 168-169.
  10. ^Cullen, Frank. "Vaudeville: Old & New". Psychology Press, 2007, p. 449.
  11. ^ abcd"Origins of Contemporary Dance". Retrieved 28 February 2012. 
  12. ^"Modern Dance Pioneers". Retrieved 28 February 2012. 
  13. ^ ab"Modern Dance History". Retrieved 28 February 2012. 
  14. ^Bird's Eye View: Dancing with Martha Graham and on Broadway/Dorothy Bird and Joyce Greenberg; with an introduction by Marcia B. Siegel, 1997
  15. ^"Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Dance". Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  16. ^"Contemporary Dance History". Retrieved 28 February 2012. 
  17. ^"What Is Modern Dance?". Retrieved 20 November 2013. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Adshead-Lansdale, J. (Ed) (1994) Dance History: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-09030-X
  • Anderson, J. (1992) Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History. Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-87127-172-9
  • Au, S. (2002) Ballet and Modern Dance (World of Art). Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20352-0
  • Brown, J. Woodford, C, H. and Mindlin, N. (Eds) (1998) (The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators). Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-87127-205-9
  • Cheney, G. (1989) Basic Concepts in Modern Dance: A Creative Approach. Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-916622-76-2
  • Daly, A. (2002) Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. Wesleyan Univ Press. ISBN 0-8195-6560-1
  • de Mille, A. (1991) Martha : The Life and Work of Martha Graham. Random House. ISBN 0-394-55643-7
  • Duncan, I. (1937) The technique of Isadora Duncan. Dance Horizons. ISBN 0-87127-028-5
  • Foulkes, J, L. (2002) Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-5367-4
  • Graham, M. (1973) The Notebooks of Martha Graham. Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-167265-2
  • Graham, M. (1992) Martha Graham: Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-57441-9
  • Hawkins, E. and Celichowska, R. (2000) The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique. Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-87127-213-X
  • Hodgson, M. (1976) Quintet: Five American Dance Companies. William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-688-08095-2
  • Horosko, M (Ed) (2002) Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2473-0
  • Humphrey, D. and Pollack, B. (Ed) (1991) The Art of Making Dances Princeton Book Co. ISBN 0-87127-158-3
  • Hutchinson Guest, A. (1998) Shawn's Fundamentals of Dance (Language of Dance). Routledge. ISBN 2-88124-219-7
  • Kriegsman, S, A.(1981) Modern Dance in America: the Bennington Years. G K Hall. ISBN 0-8161-8528-X
  • Lewis, D, D. (1999) The Illustrated Dance Technique of Jose Limon. Princeton Book Co. ISBN 0-87127-209-1
  • Long, R. A. (1995) The Black Tradition in Modern Dance. Smithmark Publishers. ISBN 0-8317-0763-1
  • Love, P. (1997) Modern Dance Terminology: The ABC's of Modern Dance as Defined by its Originators. Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-87127-206-7
  • McDonagh, D. (1976) The Complete Guide to Modern Dance Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-05055-5
  • McDonagh, D. (1990) The Rise and Fall of Modern Dance. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1-55652-089-1
  • Mazo, J, H. (2000) Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. Independent Publishers Group. ISBN 0-87127-211-3
  • Minton, S. (1984) Modern Dance: Body & Mind. Morton Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-89582-102-7
  • Roseman, J, L. (2004) Dance Was Her Religion: The Spiritual Choreography of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. Hohm Press. ISBN 1-890772-38-0
  • Shelton, Suzanne. Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
  • Sherman, J. (1983) Denishawn: The Enduring Influence. Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-9602-9
  • Terry, W. (1976) Ted Shawn, father of American dance : a biography. Dial Press. ISBN 0-8037-8557-7
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform "Revelations"
Danceworks rehearsal of "Stone Soup" with semi-improvised music from composer Seth Warren-Crow and Apple iLife sound clip "Tour Bus"

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