“I don’t get it.”
“I guess it’s art.”
“What’s modern dance?”
Experienced modern dancers and choreographers, and modern dance aficionados, are very familiar with the befuddlement that accompanies an encounter with this form of dance. If you are planning to attend a modern dance performance, or contemplating trying out a modern dance class, you may like to know that you’re in good company in not knowing how to “appreciate” modern dance. Once you learn a few things about it, you may find yourself fascinated and compelled by this wonderful, intriguing genre of dance.
“Modern dance” is a rather confusing term, because we apply the term “modern” to so many things. “Postmodern” and “contemporary” are terms equally burdened with fancy, conflicting explanations. The labels we attach to dance forms will continue to change, especially as dance forms are continually blending into and influencing one another. The best way to understand modern dance is to understand its origin. Modern dance was pioneered by Martha Graham, who conceptualized it as a radical new form of dance that would provide an alternative vision and technique to classical ballet.
Classical ballet also is divided into several categories, representing different traditions and philosophies. But overall, ballet is meant to be beautiful and inspiringly graceful, and to portray the human body as weightless, effortlessly able to fly. The ideal feminine ballet body, as many a young girl has learned, is very thin and delicate, not too curvaceous, with long limbs and neck, and high arches. Ballet technique requires you to turn out your legs (rotate them out to the side, instead of having them face straight ahead), point your toes, and extend every extremity to the maximum possible limit. Ballet is stunningly beautiful, and extremely rigorous, physically.
Modern dance has a very different philosophy. It is a dance form that welcomes any body type: short or tall, thin or stocky. Its focus is not upon your extremities (fingers, head, and toes), but on your core: your torso, chest, and pelvis. The reason is that your core is where your center of gravity lies, where your energy originates, and where you generate the strength and stability to execute those amazing balletic extensions. If you are involved with current exercise and fitness programs, such as yoga or Pilates, you will be quite familiar with this notion of the core, and you may already know how powerful and sensible it is to exercise and strengthen this part of your body.
Modern dance uses the body’s core strength, muscles, and flexibility to produce a powerful dance style that is rooted in the body and on the earth, not up in the air, like ballet. It is a technique that is healthier, more sustainable, and more accessible to a wider range of people than is ballet. You can do modern dance into your seventies! People who do not have the ideal ballet physique will find modern dance more conducive to their natural abilities. Even if you do have a ballet body, if you did not begin ballet classes at a very young age (three or five, say), it will be difficult to ever be really good at ballet. You need to work for years to achieve proper turnout and point. A modern dance class can allow you to become a dancer even at a much older age (you can begin in your 30s and 40s, even), experiencing the wonder of movement, the pleasure of dancing artfully, and reaping health benefits too.
This is not to imply that modern dance is easy, or merely a friendly form of exercise, like aerobics or Zumba. Modern performances can be visually stunning and just as physically demanding as ballet. Modern employs a different gesture vocabulary than ballet: feet are often flexed, not pointed. Elbows and knees frequently bend, making angular shapes and following sharper lines through space than the soft graceful curves of ballet. Since the core is, well, the core of modern dance (hence the name), the quintessential move of modern dance is the contraction: a C-curve in the back with tightened abdominal muscles that connotes power and often serves as the wind-up to an explosion of movement.
All dance is intensely emotional, but modern has room for different shades of melancholy and serious emotions. Broadway jazz, for instance, is a genre of dance that is usually flashy, happy, and technically perfect in execution. Modern is more flexible, unstructured, abstract, and contemplative.
So if you are going to a modern dance performance, don’t worry about figuring out the “right” interpretation from the dance. Instead, as with all dance, sit back and enjoy watching the beauty of bodies in motion. Look at the shapes and lines that the dancers make, individually or in groups. Notice moments that move you. That’s all there is to it.
Once you free yourself from the expectation of having to “get it,” you may actually comprehend the performance a lot more viscerally. Chances are, the dance is not trying to “say” much of anything. It’s just a chance to revel in movement, to hint at a story, to create something worthwhile, beautiful, and thought-provoking.
If you are considering taking a class, watch one first. Chances are, you will see the students do a warm-up that takes standard elements from ballet and jazz, warming up all muscle groups. They will do pliés and tendus to work the kinks out of their knees and feet. They may do across-the-floor exercises like triplets (a very modern exercise), practicing moving at different levels, high and low. Then they will do a combo—a choreographed dance.
If you take the class yourself, you will soon learn that a lot of modern dance technique has to do with “fall and recovery,” a concept invented by Doris Humphrey. Many modern movements explore the difference between opposites: a tense, high position that then gets released into a low, unstructured swing of your arms and torso. Such movements really allow you to relax and de-stress. Like yoga, modern dance is very concerned with breath—in fact, yoga is very important in the origin of modern dance. Modern classes also enable you to explore the origin point of certain movements, like using your shoulder blade to initiate movement in your arm, or raising your leg not by lifting your thigh as high as possible, but instead, by shooting energy out through your core, lifting from underneath, which is much easier, and better for your body.
Modern dance classes provide a deeper understanding of and appreciation for your body, and the intricate way muscles and bones work together. You can discover the wondrous feeling of slicing through space, moving your body in all sorts of ways, building muscle and tone, and gaining confidence and better posture. Give it a try!
These days, some modern dance classes are called "contemporary dance," which fuses the modern tradition with other forms, such as jazz, hip hop, or African dance. Modern also overlaps significantly with lyrical jazz.
If you want to learn more about modern dance, you may enjoy educating yourself about other influential modern dancers and choreographers, such as Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. Today, many classic dances are viewable on Youtube.