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Exploring the History, Movements & Elements of Modern Dance

Melanie Griswold, Haddy Kreie
  • Author
    Melanie Griswold

    Melanie is presently a middle school English teacher. She has received her Bachelors degree from Providence College in the studies of Public Service and Sociology. During her time at Providence College she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark with a focus on Positive Psychology. She then moved into the education field and received her Masters in Education from American International College. She is a licensed Massachusetts teacher for grades 1-6. She has spent four years in the education field and has numerous experiences working with youth and communities.

  • Instructor
    Haddy Kreie

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

Explore the world of modern dance. Learn what modern dance is, its history and types. Read who the pioneers of modern dance are. See modern dance music and moves. Updated: 11/15/2021

Modern Dance

Dance can be used as a direct expression or imitation of a human's soul or society expressed in movement. There are many types of dance, each evolving from its own form in time. Modern dance is a unique form due to the history, contributors, and movements it has represented over time.

Modern dance is a creative type of dance that is contemporary in form and uses abstract movements to portray ideas, feelings, and emotions.

Modern dance evolved from firm foundational movements of ballet. Modern dancers sought out more natural movement than the rigid and strict forms of ballet. Throughout the 20th century, these movements have become more fluid and free in movement. Today modern dance is infused with interpretive movements that may even involve some improvisation. Modern dance has evolved away from the traditional roots of ballet and into the current generation's democratic and independent movement.

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.

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History of Modern Dance

Modern dance has evolved from the 19th to the 20th century. The evolution and history of modern dance can be traced back to three distinct waves of time. This lesson will explore how modern dance's elements, focus, and movements have transitioned from the first, second, and third waves.

The first wave of modern dance can be traced back to the founders, Ruth Dennis and Isadora Duncan. In the 19th century, modern dance was recognized as "non-traditional" and was inspired by non-western cultures such as Asia, Greece, and Africa. Much of the movement was taken from the artwork and sculptures of these cultures. The style and movement of modern dance were first introduced in Europe but were brought to the forefront when the first school of modern dance, The Denishawn School of Dance and Related Arts, opened in the United States. This introduced audiences around the world to this unconventional and creative way of movement, going against the rigid ways of ballet.

The second wave of modern dance brought new contributions and styles to this new form of dance. Martha Graham is the most well-known pioneer of this era bringing new and natural movements to modern dance. During this time, the focus was on the basic movements of breathing, walking, contracting, and releasing. This wave during the 1930s survived the times of the Great Depression and WWII. The significance of this time, and the raw emotions that many people felt in society due to these events, was reflected in dance. Modern dance was no longer looked at as an abstract dance but was welcomed into the theatrical world as a familiar and respected form and style.

The third wave of dance began in the 1960s and is what we know as modern dance today. African American culture was the main influence of this period. This brought more movements and styles, including jazz and tap, into the forms of modern dance.

The most widespread and known modern dance company of our day is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which became popular in New York City in the late 1950s. This American dance company was founded by Alvin Ailey and also led by African American dancers. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre revolutionized modern dance and enriched and preserved the African American culture and American heritages through choreography. Although the leader, Alvin Ailey, has since passed, his legacy of this American dance company lives on.

Pioneers of Modern Dance

There are numerous contributors to modern dance; however, only a few made significant changes and contributions throughout the different waves of evolution.

  • Isadora Duncan is considered the mother and founder of modern dance. Isadora Duncan truly embodied the wave of modern dance in the way she went against traditional ballet wear and movement. Isadora Duncan was mainly self-taught and truly saw dance as her purpose and passion for communicating societal pressure and telling stories through dance. She developed her own company known as the Isadorables.

Founder of modern dance Isadora Duncan.

Founder of modern dance Isadora Duncan

  • Ruth St. Denis began performing at a very young age. Much of her dance style came from her bohemian upbringing and mimicked her Eastern culture and spiritual realm. She had a famous career as a soloist with the development of erotic movement and style of dance. She opened the Denishawn school of dance with famous pioneer Ted Shawn.
  • Loie Fuller was famous in the twentieth century and was most known for her theatrical contributions to skirt dancing. However, she did not have much formal dance training and was skilled in the theatrics of lighting effects and costumes. She was most known for her movement with her arms to create a visual effect for the audience. She went on tour around Europe with other pioneers, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.
  • Ted Shawn was most famous for developing the all-male dance group at Jacob's Pillow Dance Farm in Massachusetts. He is widely known for producing many more contributors to modern dance, such as Martha Graham. His choreography and composition of techniques were passed down to the future pioneers of modern dance.
  • Martha Graham is a major pioneer of modern dance. She is most well known for her piece in the 1930s, Frontier. This was a solo dance and highlighted women's struggle in uncharted territory and domains as they journeyed to the frontier. Martha Graham's works demonstrated and expressed the emotional depth of human beings, especially women. Her legacy lives on with her dance company, the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Modern dancers rehearsing at the Martha Graham Center in New York City.

Modern dancers rehearsing

Types of Modern Dance

Modern dance was derived from the foundational and traditional ways of ballet. Modern dance has evolved into various styles and a culmination of types through the years and different waves.

Some types of modern dance include hip hop, lyrical, freestyle, and fusion. These different types of dance redefine ballet and mix the known styles of tap and jazz into the movements and choreography.

Characteristics

  • 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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Video Transcript

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.

Characteristics

  • 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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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the types of modern dances?

There are different types of modern dances. Jazz, modern, and ballet are all types of dances, but modern dance combines these forms. Types of modern dances include lyrical or contemporary dance.

How would you describe modern dance?

Modern dance is a creative type of dance that is contemporary in form and uses abstract movements to portray ideas, feelings, and emotions. Modern dance uses a variety of movements, such as no boundaries and the use of space to formulate a unique style.

What are examples of modern dance?

Some examples of modern dance include hip hop, lyrical, style and fusion. Modern dance can sometimes be confused with contemporary dance or jazz dance.

Who started modern dance?

There are many important contributors to modern dance. The founder of modern dance is Isadora Duncan. Ruth St. Dennis is also one of the first pioneers of modern dance.

What is the history of modern dance?

Three historical waves can summarize the history of modern dance from the 19th century to the 20th century. It evolved and revolutionized away from ballet dance from the founder of modern dance, Isadora Duncan.

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