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Contemporary Dance and Dancers in the United States

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  • 0:06 Dance of the Early…
  • 1:45 Modern Dance in the US
  • 3:53 African-American…
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Contemporary dance in America is like nothing that came before it. Learn about the dancers and choreographers who shaped this art form in the 20th century and made it uniquely American.

Dance of the Early 20th Century

Contemporary dance isn't for everyone. Sometimes the movements are so unlike the more traditional forms of dance like ballet or tap that it's almost hard to recognize as dance at all. Just like readers didn't know quite what to make of Joyce's Ulysses when it first came out, I imagine many fans of traditional dance were really taken aback by the works of contemporary choreographers like Martha Graham or Bob Fosse because their work was so unlike what came before it. Let's take a look at some of the most popular dance choreographers of the modern era and talk about what makes them unique and what they've contributed to the world's evolving understanding of this beautiful art form.

If the name Isadora Duncan sounds familiar to you, it may be because she was a prominent American dancer in the early 20th century, but, sadly, it's probably because you've heard the story of how her long, flowing scarf got caught in the wheel of an old-fashioned car and broke her neck.

Though her end was tragic, her influence is enduring. Her style of dance was highly unique, guided more by her own imagination than a prescribed set of steps. As you might imagine, this style of dance didn't appeal to everyone, and Duncan moved around a lot during her career, likely looking for a location that would suit her unusual approach to dance.

Duncan's desire to connect emotion to movement in dance would leave a huge influence on the dancers and choreographers to come. In regards to what she wanted for American dance, she said 'let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance.' Let's take a look at those who followed in her footsteps to see if they lived up to her vision.

Modern Dance in the U.S.

While Martha Graham may not have been exactly who Duncan had in mind when she imagined the next generation of American dancers, no one could accuse Graham of adhering to tradition. A pioneer of modern dance in the mid-20th century, she's been called the Picasso of her art form. While we tend to think the modern just means current, in relationship to dance and other forms of art, it actually has a more particular meaning. Modern dance is certainly influenced by ballet but is more improvisational and also more relaxed in terms of costuming, with most modern dances performed barefoot instead of in pointe shoes.

The first time I saw a Martha Graham piece, I'll admit: I thought it looked crazy. Like modern artists in visual art and music; she was interested in form, which, in this case, is movement. Like Duncan, her dance was emotional, sometimes even sexual. And though her style wasn't for everyone, the mark she left on the world of dance is indelible.

In fact, her dance company attracted another future star of American dance, Merce Cunningham. He quickly become a solo performer in Martha Graham's dance company and went on to form his own. Some might argue that Merce's style was even more non-traditional than Graham's; he did exciting, unusual things like collaborating with visual artists, musicians and architects to create his pieces and would go to incorporate different kinds of media and technology into his dances.

Dance in Musical Theater

Over in the world of musical theater, Bob Fosse was also making waves with his unique choreography. You might be familiar with his style of dance from musicals like Cabaret and Chicago (though he was the choreographer for the 1975 stage production and not directly involved with the recent movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones).

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