The Beginner’s Guide to Contemporary Dance


What is Contemporary Dance? 


Contemporary Dance is a genre of dance that has grown to become one of the dominant dance genres for formally trained dancers all over the world and is highly popular in the U.S. and Europe. The term “contemporary” is somewhat misleading because it describes a genre that developed during the mid-20th century and is still very popular today. Because of the many influences on Contemporary Dance over the last 100 years, it is somewhat challenging to define.

Contemporary Dance is a fusion of styles that combines numerous elements of several dance genres including jazz, classical ballet, lyrical and modern. Contemporary dancers strive to connect the mind and the body through fluid dance movements. While some contemporary dancers create stories, unique characters, or theatrical events, others perform entirely new dances as they improvise using their own unique style. 

Contemporary Dance is not technique in the way that Ballet is. It is a style of dance that integrates Ballet, Modern and Jazz. Contemporary Dance gives the dancer creative freedom and pushes boundaries. One must be willing to be vulnerable to tap into one’s deepest feelings and emotions and then exhibit them through the movement. The use of weight, breath, and gravity is intrinsic in contemporary dance. Contemporary Dance is forever evolving. Every generation brings in elements from the generation before. As a Contemporary dancer, it is not only exhilarating for you but for the audience as well..

Jolene Perry

Owner and Artistic Director, Professional Dancer , Progressive Dance Studio

Progressive Dance Studio is committed to fostering the love of dance and the performing arts in our students and that starts by focusing on developing each student’s individual talents, self-confidence and self-esteem in a safe, non-competitive environment.  

We offer all new students the opportunity to sign-up for a Free Trial Class and find the dance style best for them.

Contemporary Dance – A Brief History

The primary innovators of Contemporary Dance are Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, followed by Lester Horton, Jose Limon, and Alvin Ailey, and others. These dancers and choreographers broke the rules of the stringent forms of ballet and all believed that dancers should have the freedom of movement, allowing their bodies to freely express their innermost feelings.

Early in the 1900’s Isadora Duncan was the first to reject classical dance training and focused her expressive choreography around emotion, classical music, poetry, and freedom of movement. Many other dancers soon followed and began to break the ballet mold, developing their own unique styles of movement based on their theories and experiences, focusing less on formal techniques and more on emotional and physical expression. 

Between 1900 and 1950, a new dance form emerged which was dubbed “modern dance” and was developed by such innovators as Martha Graham, Lester Horton, Jose Limon among many others. Modern dance is built around breathing, movement, contraction, and release of muscles. It is the precursor to contemporary dance.

During the mid-1940s another student of Graham’s, Merce Cunningham, began exploring his own form of dance. Inspired by the unique and radical music of John Cage, he developed an abstract form of dance. Cunningham removed dance from the formal theatrical setting and separated it from the traditional form to express specific stories or ideas. Cunningham introduced the concept that dance movements can be random, and that each performance could be unique. Because of Cunningham’s break from using formal dance techniques, he is often referred to as the father of Contemporary Dance.

At the same time, Jose Limon derived his now well known “Limon Technique” from his work with Doris Humphrey, an alumnus of the Denishawn School. Humphrey based her dances on the ensemble, not the soloists, and used imbalance as the trigger for her movements. Limon integrated his native Mexican heritage with movement that relied on “fall and rebound” and focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the human character, the ideas of opposites and the intensity of the human experience.

During the second half of the 20th century, another very important contribution came in from Alvin Ailey. Ailey trained with Horton, Humphrey, Graham, and others and created his own enduring school, dance company, and style that included the Black experience and cultural heritage into Contemporary Dance.

Contemporary Dance Master and Today’s Stars

Today’s Contemporary dancers and choreographers draw from the rich heritage of the giants in the field and a wider range of global influences to speak a world language through dance without words. Following is a few individuals who are considered the inventors and creators of Contemporary Dance and two of today’s contemporary choreographers. See how Contemporary Dance has evolved:

Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha Graham is often referred to as the founding mother of Contemporary and Modern Dance. Ms. Graham was a dancer and choreographer for over seven decades and she brought modern dance into the mainstream.

Ms. Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ironically, Ms. Graham disliked the terms “contemporary” and “modern” because she believed that dance styles constantly evolved and changed according to the times. Martha Graham’s strong belief is that Contemporary Dance is always evolving and that is its most defining characteristic.

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

If Martha Graham was the mother of Contemporary Dance, then Merce Cunningham can be considered the father of Contemporary Dance. Mr. Cunningham was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of American modern dance for more than 50 years. He danced for Martha Graham’s company until he formed his own company in the mid-1950s. Cunningham was a frequent collaborator with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage, David Tudor, Brian Eno, and graphic artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella; and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Works that Cunningham choreographed and produced with these artists had a profound impact on avant-garde art beyond the world of dance. As a choreographer, teacher, and leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham had a profound influence on Contemporary and Modern Dance.

Lester Horton (1906-1953)

Lester Horton was best known for including modern jazz and Native American dance elements into his Contemporary dances. Mr. Horton trained some dance greats, including Alvin Ailey, Eleanor Brooks, Janet Collins and Bella Lewitzky and he founded the Dance Theater of Los Angeles. Although his dance company is no longer performing today, the Horton technique is a distinctly distinctive style of technique and choreography and is still the first choice for teaching Contemporary Dance in many conservatory schools and dance studios throughout the U.S.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Alvin Ailey was an African-American dancer, choreographer, director and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). Ailey trained with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Lester Horton and others and created his own enduring school, dance company, and style. Mr. Ailey performed in four Broadway shows during the 1950s and 1960s, including House of Flowers and Jamaica. Ailey created AAADT and its affiliated Ailey School as a home for nurturing black artists and expressing the universality of the African-American experience through dance. His work fused theatre, modern dance, ballet, and jazz with black vernacular, creating hope-fueled choreography that continues to spread global awareness of black life in America. Ailey’s Revelations dance is recognized as a masterpiece and is one of the most popular and most performed ballets in the world. In addition to the numerous honors and distinctions he was awarded, Ailey also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitment to civil rights and dance in America.

Talia Favia (1991 –  Present)

Talia Favia is a Los Angeles based Choreographer, Dancer, Artist, and the Creator/Artistic director of LIV Dance. Ms. Favia has taught and choreographed all over the United States, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, and has choreographed on “So You Think You Can Dance” for many seasons. Along with traveling the world, Ms. Favia is the founder and director of her Los Angeles based contemporary company, “The Difference Between”. Some of Ms. Favia’s accomplishments include Capezio A.C.E Awards (1st Place, 2014); Guest choreographer for multiple seasons on So You Think You Can Dance TV show; and, Guest choreographer for multiple seasons on Dancing with the Stars Season (winning Season 22 Final).

Travis Wall (1987 – Present)

Travis Wall is an American dancer, dance instructor, and choreographer specializing in Contemporary and Jazz dance. Mr. Wall’s is well known for his 2006 appearance as a competitor on the second season of So You Think You Can Dance at the age of 18, where he placed 2nd. In 2010, Mr. Wall choreographed several numbers for the Video Music Awards. Since his early success, Mr. Wall has been a guest dancer, choreographer, and All-Star on So You Think You Can Dance for over 11 seasons, and also been a dancer and choreographer on Dancing with the Stars for three seasons. Mr. Wall’s outstanding choreography has been nominated for 9 Primetime Emmy Awards and he has won two Emmys, in 2015 and 2017.

Contemporary Dance Classes at Progressive Dance Studio

In addition to studying Contemporary Dance, students should also study ballet. Ballet is the foundation for all dance styles. It will give the dancer the strength, poise, balance, and control required to make it easier to master Contemporary dance. During a Contemporary Dance class, the student will work on self-awareness and harmonizing their mind and body.

At Progressive Dance Studio (PDS), we offer Contemporary Dance classes starting from age 7 through teens, beginner through advanced.

The Contemporary Dance classes that PDS currently offers include:

  • Contemporary Ages 7 – 9
  • Contemporary Ages 9 – 12
  • Teen Contemporary Ages 13 +
  • Advanced Company Contemporary

Contemporary Dancewear

At Progressive Dance Studio, the dress code for our Contemporary Dance classes include a leotard, tights, booty shorts are optional.

Contemporary Dance Footwear

Contemporary dance is usually performed barefoot.

For information about other dance styles see our post The Beginner’s Guide to Dance.

If you have questions or would like to take a tour of Progressive Dance Studio located in Englewood, NJ call our front desk at (201) 894-1333 we’re happy to help!

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