Dance has been described as the “wedding of movement to music.” Dance may be the oldest form of human communication. Men and women have always danced, for one reason or another: ritual, celebration, recreation, or entertainment. Every culture and social group has its own forms of dance, ranging from the leaps and turns of classical ballet to the stylized patterns of square dances, the elegant steps of ballroom dancing to the freeform gyrations at high school proms, break dancing to Irish step dancing.
Dance can be an enjoyable form of social interaction, a way to get exercise and meet people. Many people take up dancing for a hobby. Classes and dance groups are available for many types of dancing, from folk dancing to ballroom dancing, ballet, or modern dance. Modern dance was developed in the 20th century as a reaction to the formality of classical ballet; it tends to be loose, experimental, individualistic, and creative. If you have been longing to express yourself through dance, to make dance into a form of artistic expression, modern dance would be a good choice.
What is Modern Dance?
Modern dance is a form of theatrical dance that developed in the early 20th century in the United States and Europe, as a protest against the rigidity of classical ballet and other interpretive dance forms of the time. Like modern art and modern music, modern dance is experimental and iconoclastic, a reaction to the constraints of traditional art forms.
In the early 1900s the American dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and the German dancer Mary Wigman started to rebel against the rigid constraints of Classical Ballet. Shedding the authoritarian controls surrounding classical ballet technique, costume, and shoes, these early modern dance pioneers focused on creative self-expression rather than on technical virtuosity.
While many influences went into the development of modern dance, American dancer Isadora Duncan is the person usually credited with the creation of the modern dance movement. Trained in ballet, but wanting to express herself as an artist, Duncan found that the formal movements of ballet did not allow her to express herself fully. Duncan believed that dance should be the divine expression of the human spirit, and that the techniques of ballet distorted the natural movements of the body. She felt that ballet dancers resembled puppets, and took her inspirations from the movements of nature, from the wind among others. In a nonconformist gesture, she threw out the conventional ballet steps and created a spontaneous and highly personal form of dance that allowed her to express her inner spirit. While ballerinas danced in tight toe shoes, Duncan danced barefoot, in simple, flowing costumes. Because her art form was so personal, the new dance form could not be passed on to the next generation through training, but Duncan’s work inspired younger dancers to express themselves in a similar fashion, beginning the artistic movement that we know as modern dance.
Modern dance is a more relaxed, free style of dance in which choreographers use emotions and moods to design their own steps, in contrast to ballet`s structured code of steps. It has a deliberate use of gravity, whereas ballet strives to be light and airy.
I want to learn Modern Dance, where do I start?
Tips for the Beginner
If you are interested in learning modern dance, there are many resources available, from DVDs and online tutorials, to books and classes.
• Find a dance studio or class and take lessons. Look in the telephone book, yellow pages, or online to find a dance studio in your area that offers modern dance lessons. If you have a junior college or local university, check to see if they offer dance classes. Many colleges have non-credit courses for local residents at reasonable fees. Another source for lessons is your local recreation center or community learning center. These lessons are often less expensive, and can be found in beginner through expert levels.
• Buy or rent a video. You can purchase a modern dance video that offers step-by-step instruction online or in your local video store. If possible, rent the video first to make sure that it is the one for you. There are also videos available on dance websites or on YouTube.
• Hire a private teacher. If you cannot find a class, or if you are particularly serious about wanting to learn, you can hire a personal modern dance instructor. This is the most costly option, but you can get individualized coaching and instructions.
• Look online. You can consult the Internet for local dance groups. Resources like Craigslist are good sites for finding interest groups.
Basic Steps in Modern Dance
Modern dance was developed by classically trained ballet dancers who wanted to explore and enjoy dance outside the rigid constraints of classical ballet. They wanted to humanize the dance moves, to show emotion—sorrow, joy, anguish, frustration, yearning. Modern dance was a very creative and innovative art form, and the steps evolved with each dancer who explored the dance form. As a dancer in this tradition, you, too, will be able to contribute to the art form that is modern dance.
The particular technique you learn when you begin classes will depend on your teacher. Since modern dance is such an individualistic and creative genre, students can learn great variations in the craft by studying under different instructors. Despite this, however, there are some basic movements and techniques that are taught universally in modern dance studios.
• Curl Down and Up: Start with feet parallel and facing front and arms at your sides (this is known as jazz first position). Curl your spine over slowly, one vertebra at a time. Bend your knees when you are halfway down, and continue the curl downward. When you reach the floor, “grow” back upwards, one vertebra at a time. Do not collapse at the waist.
• Flat Back: A flat back takes a certain amount of discipline and flexibility. Bend over, keeping your spine as straight as possible, and raise your arms high overhead with palms facing inward. Raise your torso back up, simultaneously raising the arms in a single movement. This movement is graceful and controlled, reminiscent of ballet.
• Side twists: Sit on the floor with one leg bent in towards the groin and the other crossed over with the foot flat on the floor. Arms are at shoulder height. Lifting from the waist, twist the opposite arm toward the crossed knee, turning the torso. Grasp the outside of the crossed-over knee with the opposite arm, and place the other arm on your lower back. Gently pull the front arm to twist further. This is similar to the Yoga position also known as the Twist.
• Tendu: In Tendu, start with feet parallel in first position. Point the foot forward and back. Repeat the position to the side, and then to the back.
• Chasse: The Chasse is a simple jump and is common in modern dance. Stand with the weight on one foot, then shift the weight while in a ballet plié stance. Then jump so both feet are vertical together in the air. This movement can be used to travel across the floor. You can add height and a spin to the jump for a more advanced maneuver.
All modern dance steps have been derived from something else, either a classical ballet move, an everyday body movement, or a movement in nature. Modern dancers use the movements they witness in everyday life to create choreography moves. Don’t be afraid to create your own dance steps, to express your experiences, your moods, and feelings using choreography. You can tell your own story through the medium of modern dance.
Benefits of Dance
In a modern dance class, you will be working on body awareness, harmonizing your mind and body, coming into tune with your inner sense of balance and rhythm. Modern dance allows you to express yourself through the movement of your body. It improves flexibility and fitness levels, improves coordination and tone, and even sharpens musical skills. Dance practice can be an intense workout, and you will increase your strength and stamina by regular practice. In addition, a dance workout can be relaxing and exhilarating, increasing endorphins and relieving stress.
History of Modern Dance
Free dance is a 20th century dance form that preceded modern dance. Rebelling against the rigid constraints of classical ballet, dancers and choreographers in Europe and America began to search for new forms of artistic expression. The impetus for this movement began in the late 1890s in the United States, with three women.
In 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 colored gels and burning chemicals for luminescence, and also patented her voluminous silk stage costumes.
In 1903, Isadora Duncan developed a dance technique influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and a belief that the dance of the ancient Greeks (natural and free) was the dance of the future. Duncan developed a philosophy of dance based on natural and spiritual concepts and advocated for that acceptance of pure dance as a high art.
Then, in 1905, Ruth St. Denis, influenced by the actor Sarah Bernhardt and Japanese dancer Sada Yacco, developed her translations of Indian culture and mythology. Her performances quickly became popular and she toured extensively whilst researching Oriental culture and arts.
Fuller, Duncan and St. Denis all toured Europe seeking a wider and more accepting audience for their work. Ruth St. Denis returned to the United States to continue her work. Isadora Duncan returned to the United States at various points in her life but her work was not very well received there. She returned to Europe and died in Paris in 1927. Fuller`s work also received little support outside Europe.
Early Modern Dance
Isadora Duncan’s philosophy of self-expression and her concern for the inner motivation of the dancer inspired the dancers and choreographers who followed her. The romantic, stylized themes of classical ballet gave way to primitive, earthy portrayals of the deepest conflicts and passions of the human soul. These dancers tried to develop a more natural, expressive form of movement. 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 viewed the back and the pelvis as the center of all movement, and concentrated on the center of the body rather than the arms and legs in her dance movements. Doris Humphrey saw the basis of movement as an interplay between falling and recovering, between loss of balance and return to balance. Instead of defying gravity with leaps and twirls, modern dancers stayed close to the floor, falling, kneeling, and crouching, emphasizing the force of gravity. Most early modern dance works expressed the struggles of the dancer, his or her passion and emotion. While ballet dancers try to make their dance appear effortless, modern dancers emphasized the pain and struggle that made up a dance, as well as a life.
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.
Expressionist Dance (Europe)
In Europe, the modern dance movement took the form of Expressionist dance. Expressionist dance is a European dance form related to the German expressionist movement. Although considered as a part of the greater modern dance movement it is separate from Modern dance per se. German Expressionist dance is known as Ausdruckstanz .
`Expressionism` was a cultural movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the start of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world under an utterly subjective perspective, violently distorting it to obtain an emotional effect and vividly transmit personal moods and ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of "being alive" and emotional experience rather than physical reality. Expressionism often dealt with emotional turmoil and suffering, and stressed individual self-expression and the inner workings of the mind as opposed to depictions of the outer world.
Dance artists associated with expressionist dance in Europe include Mary Wigman, Francois Delsarte, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, and Rudolf von Laban. These people developed theories of human movement and expression, and methods of instruction that led to the development of European modern and Expressionist dance. Their theories and techniques spread well beyond Europe to influence the development of modern dance and theater via their students and disciples, and subsequent generations of teachers and performers carried these theories and methods to Russia, the United States and Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Modern dance was dominated by the Expressionist movement for several decades, until the 1940s, when an American choreographer, Merce Cunningham, spearheaded a revolt that led to the next trend in the modern dance movement.
By the end of World War II, a modern dance “establishment”, based on the works of Graham, Fuller, and the European Expressionists, and others, had come into being. At this point, young choreographers began looking for ways to once again break the rules: creating dances that had no theme, expressed no emotion, and sought different means of expression through movement.
Beginning in the 1940s, one of Graham’s students, Merce Cunningham, led a growing reaction against Expressionism. Cunningham wanted to create dance for its own sake, not for the sake of storytelling, emotional expression, or social commentary. Cunningham’s dance was concerned with movement, rhythm, phrasing, and structure. He believed that movement should define its own space and rhythms, and that the set and the music should be secondary. He also believed that all movement was potential dance material. He incorporated everyday acts such as sitting down and walking into his routines. With Cunningham, modern dance regained some of the light, airy quality of ballet, with intricate footwork and high and controlled leg extensions, and an emphasis once again on the vertical dimension. While Martha Graham’s works were structured around events in a story, Cunningham’s works centered around one or more choreographic ideas; the audience was left to provide a context and story line to the work. “Emotion will appear,” he maintained, “when the movement is danced, because that is where the life is.”
Whilst the founders of modern dance continued to make works based on ancient myths and legends following a narrative structure, their students, the radical dancers, saw dance as a potential agent of change. Disturbed by the Great Depression and the rising threat of fascism in Europe, they tried to raise consciousness by dramatizing the economic, social, ethnic and political crises of their time.
Postmodern and Contemporary Dance
Both Postmodern dance and Contemporary dance are built upon the foundations laid by Modern dance and form part of the greater category of 20th century concert dance. Whereas Postmodern dance was a direct and opposite response to Modern dance, Contemporary dance draws on both modern and postmodern dance as a source of inspiration.
The social and artistic upheavals of the late 1960s and 70s provoked even more radical forms of modern dance. Modern dance today is much more sophisticated in technique and technology than when modern dance was founded. The founders composed their dances entirely of spirit, soul, heart and mind as opposed to today`s modern which has more technical aspects. The concern with social problems and the condition of human spirit is still expressed, but the issues that are presented would have appalled many early modern dancers.
Twyla Tharp eliminated sound accompaniment altogether, feeling that it might distract the viewer’s attention from the dance itself. In addition, she performed in unorthodox venues, such as the staircase of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Dancer Steve Paxton added mundane actions such as dressing and undressing into his routines, and even performed a dance duet with a chicken. Like other pop artists of the 1960s and 70s, these dancers were attempting to break down the barriers between dancers and audience, between art and life.
The essence of modern dance is to look forward, not back. Ballet and modern sometimes fuse together and enrich both forms, but neither is likely to lose its identity in the process. It is impossible to predict what directions modern dance will take in the future. Each style could go in so many different directions and are usually very radical. If this trend keeps up, future audiences can look forward to an interesting forum of dance.
Modern dance is a creative offshoot of traditional ballet, a revolt against the formal structure of classical ballet. In modern dance, self-expression, portrayal of strong emotion, and individual creativity are stressed. If you are looking for a personal form of artistic self-expression through movement, modern dance may be the hobby for you. There are online resources, dance groups, and classes available. Whatever your age or skill level, this creative and innovative art holds something for you.