Contemporary Dance: What Is It & How Do I Do It?

Contemporary Dance: What Is It & How Do I Do It?

Contemporary dance is known as an “abstract painting”.

It is not a specific dance technique; it is a mix of different techniques based on the modern style.

Dance styles that have influenced Contemporary include Jazz, Modern, Lyrical and Ballet.

This is what makes it extremely dynamic and out-of-the-box.

Its expressive qualities are limitless.

This dance explores a wide range of emotion through movement.

Contemporary dancers aim to express themselves in a creative and fluid manner.

They use a lot of floor work and often dance barefoot.

Gravity is an important element in this dance, pulling dancers down to the level of the floor.

Improvisation is key in the contemporary dance form.

Dancers tend to use whatever they feel in the moment for inspiration.

Woman doing contemporary dance in the sunset

Defining the style is difficult as it is a fluid and a vague style of dancing.

The dance involves an openness to playing and discovery.

Things like balance, improvisation, floor work, fall and recovery are all used.

It is an exploration of natural energy in your body to create very personal expression of dance.

As you can see, Contemporary is not associated with a specific dance style.

Other Notes

Keep in mind that there are many different Contemporary dance forms.

Contemporary dancers come from a variety of backgrounds.

The American Contemporary dance form is different from the European one or the Australian one.

Body work techniques and other non dance influences have also been incorporated into Contemporary.

There include examples like yoga and the Alexander method.

Woman contemporary Dancing in the Street

Fun Facts about Contemporary Dance

  • Anything can happen and no two acts are ever the same
  • Some say that Contemporary dance cannot be described in words
  • “Contemporary” means it exists in the present moment
  • It has managed to stay relatable through the years
  • Being expressive has never gone out of style
  • The initial idea behind a piece might change at the performance
  • The only thing required is to be present and allow yourself to move
  • It’s considered to be a “melting pot” style with no definition
  • It borrows from other dance styles, yet remains uniquely its own

Here is an example of a Contemporary dance performance. What do you think of this video?

Modern & Contemporary:
What Sets Theses Styles Apart?

What are the differences between these styles? A lot of it has to do with:

  • the objective of movement
  • whether or not there is story line
  • specific technique

Modern Dance was originally developed as a response to classical dance forms, costumes and footwear.

The focus of movement depends on emotions, moods, and the use of gravity.

Structured routines are avoided.

Modern dance embodies the interpretation of emotion.

Contemporary dance is younger and more recent, as it developed from Modern dance.

Movements of this dance are lighter and more fluid, as opposed to heavy.

Contemporary dance is a concert dance without any choreography.

Although Contemporary dance is influenced by many different dance styles, it is at the same time influenced by none of them.

For this very reason, it proves itself to be quite unique.

Woman Dancing on the Beach

Brief History of Contemporary Dance

Contemporary dance has its origins in the mid 20th Century.

It gained popularity in the US and Europe quickly, as an branch off of Modern dance and other 20th century dance techniques.

Even though Ballet and Modern Dance are the ancestors of Contemporary, the pioneers of Contemporary dance broke the rules of those dances.

They believed that dancers need freedom of movement to express feelings.

These pioneers include Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Lester Horton.

All of them wanted to have dancers embrace freedom.

They believed that old dance rules must be ignored.

This allowed them to explore limits of the human body and “visual expression” of their feelings.

The new dance movement caught on fast.

It wasn’t long before Contemporary became a dominant genre for formally trained dancers.

Contemporary Dance Pioneers

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)

Isadora rejected classical dance training, using new types of inspiration for choreography.

These inspirations focused on emotion, poetry, philosophy, freedom of movement, and bare feet.

Her new approach to dance clashed with more conventional approaches.

It seemed like a strange concept at the time.

But her vision created a distinctive style in her new works.

This led her to the creation of “Modern Dance”.

Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha is considered to be a legend in dance history, just like Picasso is considered to be in art history.

She defined her response to classical forms of dance by introducing new movements of the body.

One of her methods was “Contraction and Release” and rawness of the human experience.

Since these were new concepts in dance, Martha believed they didn’t need labels.

She did not like her work to to be defined as “modern” or “contemporary”.

Martha earned the honor of being the first dancer to perform at the White House.

She even received a Medal of Freedom.

She went down in history for popularizing this new dance movement.

Here is a Tribute to Martha Graham, a powerful and artistic force to be remembered:

A Tribute to Martha Graham

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce is called the Father of Contemporary dance.

He gravitated towards a style of choreography that went against modern dance concepts.

Merce developed an attitude to his style of dance.

He believed that there is no need for story or emotional background.

There was no goal in mind when creating a piece.

Rather, he aimed to find order in disorder.

Merce used chance, unconventional spaces and unpredictability.

He believed that a dance must be seen and not analyzed.

The focus was on rhythm, diversity and creative freedom.

He also introduced a zen influence to dance.

This was a new concept in itself.

Lester Horton (1906-1953):

Lester developed his own dance technique called the “Horton Technique”.

In theory, it has no style.

It borrows from other styles with using a whole body approach to dance.

His focus was on awareness, strength, flexibility, body coordination and freedom of expression.

He was popularized his technique through the help of other unconventional dance styles and techniques.

These dances and techniques included Native American Folk Dance, Japanese arm gestures, Afro Carribean elements and Javanese and Balinese upper body isolation.

Here is a Beginner Level Video demonstrating Lester Horton’s Technique:

Lester Horton Technique • beginner level Tono Dimensional

Other Dances that Inspired the
Contemporary Style

Contemporary dance shares similarities with many other dances and seems to be closely related to them.

However, there are clear differences that separate Contemporary from other dances.

These are the different dance styles that have influenced Contemporary.

Every different dance style is unique for different reasons.

Some of these Dance Styles include:

  1. JAZZ is a form of Modern and uses the rhythm of Jazz Music.
  2. MODERN dance puts stress on the torso. It is a free style that goesagainst classical dance styles.
  3. CLASSICAL BALLET focuses on legwork, precision and strict structure.
  4. AFRICAN DANCE focuses on bent knees, expression and rhythm.
  5. JAPANESE BUTOH is the Japanese version of contemporary dance. It engages the nervous system with dance.
  6. NATIVE AMERICAN FOLK DANCE uses symbols, role play and emotional meaning in dance.
  7. INDONESIAN DANCE uses arm movements and the upper body, eyes, head and hands.
  8. YOGA has a focus on being present and in the moment. Breath, body alignment and relaxation are used to do this.
  9. ALEXANDER METHOD focuses on awareness of space and the use of body to avoid tension.
  10. AFRO-CARRIBEAN styles focus on hip movements, isolation and a feet stomp rhythm.
Women Dancing Contemporary on Stage

What is a Contemporary Class Experience Like?

If you attend a Contemporary dance class, you will start using your body in new ways.

There will be a focus on breathing, emotions and posture.

You will also create a link betwteen your mind and your body.

Depending on the instructor, you may be told to improvise your own dance or you may be given a dance to learn.

A Contemporary dance piece features many techniques used for expression.

The sky is the limit.

The dance piece itself can take several forms.

It might also include a deeper message.

Dances can draw from inspiration of a personal story, society, or culture.

Contemporary dance classes can be taken at local dance schools, community colleges and even health clubs.

Public performances are popular in big cities, for a chance to check it out for yourself.

Contemporary Quick Facts

  • Story is not necessary.
  • It may appear to be disorderly.
  • Technique is necessary.
  • It’s unpredictable in rhythm, direction and speed.
  • Multiple things can happen at the same time.
  • There may not be a relationship between the dance and music
  • It is not to be analyzed.
  • Sets, lighting and costuming are innovative.
Woman Dancing in Mid Air

Why People Like Contemporary

Contemporary is all about letting loose and setting yourself free.

It’s about expressing emotion and bringing how you feel into the dance.

Naturally, it becomes a therapeutic outlet for those who participate.

The dance is enjoyable to watch.

There are great lines, textures and very fluid movements.

It is raw, artistic and athletic. Both strong yet floating.

Dancing this style is an emotional investment and draws on the body and new movement.

Video Review of a Contemporary Dance

Check out the following Contemporary Dance video.

LAND OF ALL - contemporary dance - MN DANCE COMPANY

This video shows the power of contemporary.

It demonstrates inventive, diverse movement, which creates a very emotional piece.

The piece draws from different styles for a very creative dance.

The piece is strong, artistic, yet effortless.

It has a feeling as if nothing else matters in the moment they are dancing.

In this particular case, the dance matches the music well.

The most important thing is that it makes you feel something.

And you will probably never get tired of watching it.

What is it about?

Perhaps it is a portrayal of love and life.

Perhaps you have your own way of seeing it.

That is the beauty of it all.

Global Influences

Even though many people think of contemporary as a western style, it is actually gets influence from all over the world.

The following are just a few of the unexpected influences that made their mark on what Contemporary is today.

These dance include African Dance, Japanese Butoh, Native American Folk Dance, Indonesian Dance, Yoga, Alexander Method and more.

Here is a fun video of a Contemporary dance with African dance influence:

African Contemporary Dance to Jungle : Sound Sultan

Contemporary Dance Techniques

It is important to note that there are no established movement patterns in Contemporary.

Rather, the preparation of the mind and body is specifically important.

In order to expand your range of movement, focus on relaxation and freedom.

Unnecessary tension should be released while moving.

A healthy well-being is most important, as well as improving self-awareness.

This is why Contemporary dance can become like therapy.

Check out this online contemporary dance class with some exercises and choreography:

Contemporary online class

Benefits of Contemporary Dance

  • Learn new ways to move your body and increases your range of motion.
  • Open your mind to news ways of understanding your body and new ways of having relationships with others and yourself.
  • Provide yourself a way to achieve self-realization and expression.
  • Allow yourself to experience freedom, joy, health, satisfaction, and enthusiasm.

How to Dance Contemporary

There is no “best way” to dance Contemporary, however, you do need muscle and control.

Because there is no defined movement, it is important to understand its purpose.

This means that contemporary dance is used to satisfy an idea and not an audience.

The purpose is to be original in your performance.

The focus should be on form, movement and style of the dancer.

It is important to let the audience see every muscle and invite them to feel what you feel.

It may seem like this explanation lacks structure, just like the dance itself.

However, a video is included below with a tutorial on how to get started.

Remember, before starting to dance, it is important to stretch.

Beginner Contemporary Dance Tutorial:

Beginner Contemporary Dance Tutorial!

Contemporary Dance Costumes

Due to the fact that Contemporary is so unique, it is sometimes hard to find the right costume.

Some believe that it is important to free the audience from distractions such as costumes.

Some even think that the best way of performing a contemporary piece is with no costume at all.

However, the right costume can add a lot of expression to your movement.

As much as a costume can add to the beauty and movement in a dance, it can at the same time distract from the expression as well.

Dance outfits should complement the choreography and emotion.

Should it flow and drape on the body?

Or, should it be tightly fitting?

Fabrics can be solid or sheer, stretchy or non stretchy. You must draw the inspiration from within yourself.

A few examples of some dance costumes may include baby doll dresses, tops with shorts, longer handkerchief dresses that add to the grace and unitards for a sharper look.

Women Dancing Interpretive Style

Contemporary Music and Timing

The music and movement of contemporary dance does not have to match up.

For this reason, a wide variety of music can be used.

The most important aspect is that the music inspires the movement and doesn’t overpower it

As we know, the moves in contemporary dancing are not established.

Contemporary is an art form that doesn’t put limits on experimenting.

Like its movement, the music for contemporary is similar.

There are trends for what kind of music could be used and played.

However, the music is not really established either.

You just need to be able to dance to it.

How to Find Appropriate Music

Silence is appreciated in the Contemporary dance style.

You may dance an entire piece in silence, and many dancers do.

It is important to note that dance does not have to be dependent on music’s sound or rhythm.

However, many of us love music and choose to dance to it.

In order to decide on the right music to use, you have to consider the feeling and idea of the dance.

What type of music will respond to your idea?

This is up to you.

Woman Dancing on the Sand

These are some questions to consider before choosing a song:

  • What is the purpose of your dance?
  • Do you want the music to inspire your movement?
  • Or, do you want to find a song to fit your idea?

Choosing music can be as simple as finding something that makes you want to dance.

If you are having trouble finding music, or if you want to be original, get a piece written specifically for you.

Curious about what contemporary music sounds like?



As you can see, Contemporary dance can be for anyone.

Its very interpretive and personal to each dancer.

Contemporary dance gives us a great outlet for relaxation.

It can give us a fresh mental outlook on the relationship we have with the world and ourselves.

Start watching videos of the dance to get familiar with it.

Then perhaps try it out for yourself.

There is no reason to miss out on one of the most unique forms of dance out there!

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