Modern Dance: History & Types

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  • 0:04 What Is Modern Dance?
  • 1:07 Characteristics
  • 1:59 History of Modern Dance
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Haddy Kreie

Haddy is ABD in Theatre Studies and has taught college theatre for 7 years.

Modern dance doesn't just refer to the dances of 'today.' Instead, it refers to a particular period and style of dance that developed in the early 1900s. In this lesson, we address the history of modern dance, some of its characteristics, and some of the people who defined it.

What is Modern Dance?

Have you ever thought about why there are different styles of dance? Is it just because people like to move differently, or is there something bigger driving those different styles? For many dancers, dance can tell stories and make statements about society. The dancers who developed modern dance wanted to make a statement about previous limitations of dance and the body. Let's take a look at the evolution of modern dance and some of its major contributors.

Modern dance is a style of dance that developed as a reaction to the strict rules that defined ballet. This is because it emerged at the beginning of the 20th century in a time when ballet had previously dominated the dancing world. While Europe claims the roots of modern dance, the innovations made by dancers in the United States quickly gave a home to the developing dance form.

As a dance form reacting to the constraints and formality of ballet, modern dance developed through the ideals of 20th-century America, such as democracy, social protest, and individuality, disregarding the strict aristocratic roots and conformity from which ballet emerged. This changed the language of dance choreography and the way that dances developed.


  • Use of space: While ballet dancers typically face the audience directly, modern dancers use all orientations, even completely turning their back on the audience.
  • Relationship to music: In ballet, the dancer's movements correspond harmoniously with the music, but in modern dance, dancers may dance off-beat or in contrast to the music, ignore the music completely, or dance on a silent stage.
  • Performers: Contrasting the large casts and strict hierarchy of ballet, modern dance choreographers often also perform. They may work alone or with smaller dance troupes. Women also gained recognition and influence as choreographers.
  • Movement: Ballet has a very strictly defined set of movements that get pieced together to create different dances. In modern dance, however, dancers create a new language of movement with every piece, experimenting with how they can manipulate the body.

History of Modern Dance

The history of modern dance can be divided into three periods. The first period began at the turn of the century, around 1900; the second phase emerged during the interwar period, around 1930; and the third took root after World War II, around 1945. Historical social changes influenced each evolution of modern dance, which we call the ''waves''.

1. First Wave

Modern dance of the early 20th century sought to distance itself from the formulaic spectacle of ballet and achieve more ''natural'' movement. Dancers during this time also looked to non-Western cultures for inspiration, such as ancient Greek sculpture and African and Asian cultures.

Isadora Duncan, considered the inventor of modern dance, implemented these ideals by dancing barefoot, letting her hair flow freely, letting gravity and her breathing guide her movements, and dancing in a simple, unrestrictive tunic.

Ruth St. Denis believed that dance could transcend into the spiritual realm and experimented with dance forms that derived from Asia, India, and Egypt, especially drawing on religious influences from those regions.

2. Second Wave

In the 1930s, the second wave of modern dance looked to internal sources of movement rather than external ones, transforming the natural act of walking, for example, into dance. During this period, artists began developing and codifying new dance techniques.

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