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Your Guide to Understanding Modern Dance

  • By Rio Spelling
  • Published 08/28/2012

From the Tango and Samba to Ballet and Ballroom, there is a long history of dances that all cultures revere for their passion, beauty, elegance and precision.

One of the more confusing techniques for novices however is modern dance – with its combination of a variety of styles as well as its use of free expressions of style, many are baffled by what this genre is trying to achieve.

One of the best contemporary UK dancers to watch out for when trying to understand modern dance is Strictly Come Dancing judge and famous choreographer Craig Revel Horwood – his productions are a unique blend of old and new techniques that always have an original flair to them.

The following guide will explore the modern dance genre, to help you enjoy the movements and approaches that make it so interesting.


Interestingly, modern dance evolved in the 1900’s as a rebellion by European dancers against the rigidly formal rules and limitations demanded by classical ballet. These artists became pioneers who chose to defy set structure and strict norms by performing bare foot and in uniquely revealing costumes that allowed their bodies to express themselves in a range of new ways.

Modern dance primarily focuses on giving movement and physical form to your inner feelings, while emphasising unbridled creativity in choreography and performance techniques.

As the name suggests, this genre of dance is relatively new and continues to evolve, although it started truly defining itself in the early 20th century. Modern dance stands out for being a style of movement that predominantly relies on the dancer’s own interpretations and emotions in contrast to more traditional, structured steps.

Evolution of the Modern Dance Genre

In Europe, it was revolutionaries such as Francois Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban who developed refreshingly new ideas about human movement, expression and methods of dance instruction.

These European pioneers paved the way for the evolution of Modern and Expressionist dance. The theories and techniques of these legends later grew beyond Europe to influence the formation of both modern dance and theatre.

Subsequent generations of dance performers and teachers then carried these novel ideas and techniques to the UK, Russia, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where they have flourished into yet more innovations.

As an example, Martha Graham is renowned as one of the earliest inventors of American modern dance. She developed her very own language of movement in order to express the ecstasy, passion and rage of the human psyche. She also developed an innovative dance technique that incorporated classical ballet, while digressing from it radically by focussing on and enhancing basic human movements.

Defining Characteristics of Modern Dance

Modern dancers display a free, loose and generally much more relaxed style compared to the rigid techniques of ballet – this also includes their typical dress styles when performing.

They are encouraged during training to use their emotions and moods to express unique steps and routines instead of standardised, formal structures. In fact modern dancers stand out for choosing to reject the classical ballet stance of a rigidly formal, erect body – they often even deliberately fall to the floor and contort their bodies in new ways.

A further crucial characteristic of modern dance which sets it apart from ballet is the elaborately deliberate use of gravity. While classical ballet dancers train exhaustively to appear light and airy on their feet, modern dancers often use their body weight to enhance movement and highlight emotion.

Before setting out to choreograph a new routine, modern dancers take their lead from deciding which emotions they want to convey to the audience. Music is also highly important to the storey they want to convey, as well as the absence of it.


Now that you have a solid understanding of how modern dance evolved and what it strives to achieve, you will be better able to appreciate its merits. While we cannot all be as sure footed as professional choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, this type of dance is excellent for novices and professionals alike, since the cathartic emotional expression and loose movement that modern dance permits allows the body to have free reign to enjoy itself.

Author Bio : Rio Spelling is a choreography and dance enthusiast



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