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Understanding the Art of Modern Dance

Updated on August 28, 2014

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This page exists to educate and inform the public on the art and material of an overlooked, very misunderstood, American art form: Modern Dance. From my experience as both an educator in private schools and colleges as well as a professional choreographer and artistic director, I discovered the lay public do not have a clue as to what modern dance is; its style, its relation to ballet, what it means, why it is important, and how it relates to the other art forms. This page offers my view to help the general population learn, and hopefully be inspired, by this incredible form of art.

Regrettably, dance is one of the four major art genres not offered in the public schools, and sadly, very scantily and simplistically in most private schools. This fact limits its exposure. Over time it results in a public uninformed and uneducated on the art of dance. Why is this so? Administrators unfortunately are not aware of dance as a viable form because they themselves were never exposed to educational dance in schools when they were young as they were with the other art forms of music, art and theater. Coupled with the unfortunate fact that a hard stigma exists with dance and boys, well ... you gets the picture. "So You Think you Can Dance" brought to the forefront the commercial contemporary dance view, (i.e. fusions of dance, including musical theater and jazz) and raised awareness of other dance forms, but never does the show ever mention the term, “modern dance”.

My view is that one of the most important things to remember about "Modern Dance" is that it is the form that rebelled against the structured, controlled atmosphere and technique of ballet. Created primarily by women in the early 20th century (specifically Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan in the United States and Mary Wigman in German), the modern technique expressed movement ideas related to being "off-center", i.e. not being as centered or upright as ballet. Thus the movements that were designed anew and focused on 1) The inner core muscles, used with "contractions" and other torso work. They were used to expressed deep human emotion, such as in the work of Martha Graham. 2) The idea of moving off-center by the "fall and recovery" concept created by Doris Humphrey. All this expressed a departure from the norm (ballet) into the new realm of using movement as metaphor. Both the "fall and recovery" theme as well as the "contraction" core-muscle use created a vulnerability on the part of both performer and choreographer, which helped to provide the creative movement template necessary for the innovation towards new modernist thought.

At the turn of the century the choreographic field exploded with new ideas. In the 1940s modern dance choreography included revolutionary work by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Mary Wigman as well as many other modern dance artists. At last the palette a choreographer used to create dance-works was filled with the rich material of varied, raw colors, dynamic energy and emotions with which they could utilize. The work now expressed "feelings" and "intellectual ideas" rather than merely works that expressed dancer as an "object" for entertainment purposes.

Without the knowledge of these basic modern dance concepts created at the turn of the century by these visionary and courageous artists, dance as ballet would have stayed stuck in a technique that was 300 years old. It would not have been able to reflect the emotions, creativity and intelligence of our contemporary times. Modern Dance concepts are now incorporated in all dance styles today, including contemporary ballet and hip-hop, but the pure, fundamental technique and creative elements of Modern Dance continue to struggle to be recognized and appreciated under the label "Modern Dance".

Created by women, the technique and choreography of modern dance incorporates work of one's body, mind and spirit simultaneously. The tools of working creatively as a student, performer or choreographer include similar ideas that exist in art, theater and music composition.

Modern Dance encompasses a template of movement training imperative to creating dance choreography having the potential to be artful, profound, sophisticated and powerful. Analysis of abstract elements of space, shape, time and energy, the ability to take risks with one's weight and movement energy, knowledge of spatial awareness, the ability to investigate and explore various meters and rhythms in music and movement as well as the precision it takes to articulate one's feelings with artistry of movement and movement design are all a part of what gives modern dance its uniqueness. It has its own indentity as a vital and important performing art form.

Programs in universities throughout the country focus on pure modern dance technique and its creative intellectual concepts. The University of Utah program in modern dance runs a strong program as well as Ohio State University, Wesleyan University, Butler College, Bates College and Connecticut College. Unfortunately, because there exist very few substantial modern dance programs for young children and teens, the term is diffused and misinterpreted. Modern, contemporary dance, with its foundation in ballet and creative thought, is the dance art of now; thoughtful, deep, generous. The art form focuses on the organic power of thought, creativity and one's innovation using movement as medium. It is important to protect, preserve and to be aware of Modern Dance, the most American of art forms.

Denishawn ~ Music Visualizations, Synchoric Orchestra dancing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, first performed in 1919 at Ted Shawn's Grand Ave., Los Angeles studio.
Denishawn ~ Music Visualizations, Synchoric Orchestra dancing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, first performed in 1919 at Ted Shawn's Grand Ave., Los Angeles studio. | Source
Doris Humphrey - early modern dance pioneer
Doris Humphrey - early modern dance pioneer | Source
Paul Taylor Dance Company Photo:  Lois Greenfield
Paul Taylor Dance Company Photo: Lois Greenfield | Source
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew from a now-fabled performance in March 1958, at the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association in New York. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed fore
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew from a now-fabled performance in March 1958, at the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association in New York. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed fore | Source
Mark Morris Dance Company in a work by Charles Ives, 2009.
Mark Morris Dance Company in a work by Charles Ives, 2009. | Source
Ann-Marie Cofield/ Rebecca Rice Dance Photo:  Lois Greenfield
Ann-Marie Cofield/ Rebecca Rice Dance Photo: Lois Greenfield | Source
Faith 1991 Choreography by Pat Graney Premiere: OntheBoards at the MooreTheater
Faith 1991 Choreography by Pat Graney Premiere: OntheBoards at the MooreTheater | Source
This modern-based improvisational trio of dance artists performs and teaches workshops nationally. Audiences have heralded Like You Mean Its simultaneous wit, humanity, oddity, and physical virtuosity.
This modern-based improvisational trio of dance artists performs and teaches workshops nationally. Audiences have heralded Like You Mean Its simultaneous wit, humanity, oddity, and physical virtuosity. | Source

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      ron 3 years ago

      I agree wholeheartedly with you

      Modern dance is a true American treasure and is very much underappreciated.

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      modern1 3 years ago

      Thank you, Miss-Megan. I totally agree. Most likely because they are focusing on spotlighting jazz and hip-hop styles in order to get the higher number of viewers. It is a shame they do not take the time to educate themselves! Unfortunately our world has become more about the "almighty dollar" and less about "the real thing".

    • Miss-Megan profile image

      Miss Megan 4 years ago from Indianapolis, IN

      In my opinion, Modern Dance is the most beautiful form of dance. Thank you for sharing! I wish SYTYCD and other popular culture would represent Modern Dance :).

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