Contemporary dance is a genre of new dance that emerged during the middle of the 20th century. It has taken elements from various other styles of dance (classical ballet, country line dancing, folk dancing, …) and brought them up to date. Not to be confused with Modern dance, Contemporary dance master classes are similar in terms of style and technique but from a slightly different perspective.
Prospective new students should also note that Contemporary dancing is not a form of freestyle showcase dancing; precise placement and technical movements are combined to create strong and controlled legs, feet, arms, torso and hip work. So if you thought this dance program suited you because you could just go in the door and let yourself go, doing what the music tells you to do, you were wrong! That said, the broad and expressive nature of dance moves in Contemporary dance does mean that you can be more liberal and inventive with your dance choreography.
If you watch renowned reality talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent, you will no doubt have noticed a rise in popularity in dance acts, many of whom perform Contemporary dances to modern music. If you take the time to listen to their stories, it will be revealed that they show huge amounts of commitment to their art form, spending hours of their day rehearsing and perfecting each and every move in their lyrical dance, no matter how free and uplifting their performance looks on the day.
Contemporary dancers can be solo artists however many choose to perform alongside others and become a resident member of a dance act partnership or group, as it offers more opportunities to impress their audience with lifts and other tricks which rely on other bodies.
Contemporary dances will often be performed in groups so as to have even greater opportunities to express using lifts and shapes. Photo credit: hernanpba on Visual Hunt
Contemporary dance is particularly popular in Europe and America, with American dancer Merce Cunningham being the first dance choreography expert to become set on developing a modern dance idea.
Moving away from the linear elements and traditions that seemed to confine dancers to certain movements, Cunningham and his followers used everything in the performance – sounds and light as a means of expression and unpredictable changes in speed, rhythm and direction to get the emotional message across – to characterise this newfound dancing style.
Gone were limitations of Western dances, and in were new influences from other extraordinary contemporary dance nations like Africa (which offered a bent knees style) and Japan (which too offered unique movements).
Cunningham set up his own dance company, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in the mid-twentieth century and went on to choreograph in excess of 150 works which have been seen performed on stage by ballet dance companies and modern dance troupes, a major achievement for the experimental dancer and a great way to raise continuing awareness of the groundbreaking dance technique.
Other pioneers of what is know today as Contemporary dance are Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Mary Wigman, Francois Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Paul Taylor, Rudolph von Laban, Loie Fuller, Jose Limon and Marie Rambert.
Since the mid-1900s, and more so than ever in the present moment, Contemporary dance has grown in popularity and is being performed in a variety of clubs, venues, nightclubs, stage performances, online videos, talent shows and competitions as well as featuring in many modern dancing films.
Many could easily be fooled into thinking that Contemporary dance because it doesn’t follow as strict a set of rules as some more traditional dances, needs no choreography. However, a choreographer or artistic director dramatically influences the talented members of a Contemporary dance company and makes decisions about the purpose of the piece they are working to reflect (i.e. if it is to be an abstract form of art or if it should narrate a story).
Furthermore, dancers are not just any trained performers; they are carefully selected and awarded a placement on the dance training program based on their skills and abilities along with their previous level of training and its relevance. Contemporary dancers will, therefore, have undergone a lengthy selection path before being chosen as a member of a particular dance academy.
Music plays a very important role in any Contemporary dance demonstration (as the dance is choreographed to relate to it and its message), as do costumes and outfits which are like supporting acts because they can influence the appearance of dancers’ movements and thus make the show appear even more innovative.
In Contemporary dancing, costumes are carefully chosen or designed because of the way they create shape and movement during a routine. Photo credit: The Whisperer of the Shadows on Visual hunt / CC BY-ND
When it comes to technique, Contemporary dancers use specific modern dancing techniques, along with some traditional elements and a number of non-dance related practices too (for instance, the posture and movements in mime, yoga and Pilates are often drawn on as well as performance attributes like improvisation, the Graham technique, the Humphrey-Weidman technique, the Alexander technique and the Horton technique).
Many successful Contemporary dancers have gone on to open up dance training schools and academies to spread their passion for the genre and help to turn upcoming stars into dynamic professional dancers.
Just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were masters of the Ballroom and tap dance floors, Contemporary dance has its own collection of megastars who have found fame internationally in the twentieth century or afterwards.
Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) is a great example of one of these strong female figures in Contemporary dance. One of the most recognised dancers in the history of Contemporary dance, Duncan threw out the rule book when it came to classical dance and stood out in her modern approach and innovation to create a new unique style. She was greatly influenced by Greek culture and admired their natural movements and expression from within. Today, she is known as the ‘mother of modern dance’ and has taught many a beginner to dream big.
Martha Graham (1894-1991) is another important figure in this dancing discipline, A dancer, a choreographer and a teacher of modern Contemporary dance, she created movements based on emotions, using contracting and releasing with sharp and angular movements to portray a feeling. The Martha Graham Dance Academy (also known as the Martha Graham Academy of Dance) is still operating in America today, one of the oldest dance schools of the country.
There were and are, of course, many more dancers who influenced and continue to develop the Contemporary dance tradition, with just some of these contributors being: Martha Clarke, Virginia Tanner, Travis Wall, Dada Masilo, Terence Lewis, Sang Jijia and Tadashi Endo, Dominique Bagouet, Neerav Bavlecha, Jérôme Bel, Sérgio Benvindo Júnior, Charlie Bruce and Claude Brumachon.
Across the country are many dance studios specialising in the art of dance, with Contemporary dance being one of the branches that offer lessons in. However, London is one of the best places to learn how to dance in this modern way in the United Kingdom.
London Contemporary Dance School, based in Kings Cross, is one of the most popular and highly-rated dance schools of its type, not only in the capital. It is referred to by Google as a 4.2/5.0 star establishment and forms a parts of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama. Not a dance studio that encourages drop ins, this top dance college offers higher level dance education, qualifying graduates in the art of dance. Students work on the theory of art, the history of dance and on developing artistic performances.
Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance is also a highly-rated dance academy on Google which, as its name suggests, offers dance tuition in all aspects of ballet, from classical ballet to contemporary ballet, along with other Contemporary dance styles. The Twickenham-based school of dance offers inspirational and life-transforming tuition for students who wish to become a professional dancer or performer and pursue a career in the Contemporary dance world.
However, if it is evening group workshops you are after or private dance lessons you are looking for, then you may be interested to know that many dance clubs or gymnastics centres offer Contemporary dancing classes in their studios, payable weekly or in a block semester by semester. So, you can learn to dance the principal steps and sequences of a Contemporary dance under the instruction of an experienced educator.
As we’ve discovered, the costumes worn during Contemporary performance ensembles can be just as important as the music you dance to. Costumes accentuate movements and motions and can be used to enhance certain postures and positions or to create emotion (i.e. soft flowing chiffon-style fabrics will be more romantic than tight-fitting clothing).
During rehearsals, Contemporary dancers tend to wear a leotard and tights or leggings. Photo credit: quinn.anya on Visualhunt.com
But if you are more concerned with what to wear on your first day at a Contemporary dance class than telling a story or emphasising a line, then you might like to know that, in the studio for rehearsals, outfits vary from dancer to dancer. Many new students will wear a leotard with leggings or spandex shorts over the top, whilst others will wear yoga pants and a tank top or training bra (for women). You usually have the choice to go barefoot or wear some dancing shoes like jazz shoes or ballet shoes. It is not recommended to wear socks or shoes with no grip as you could cause yourself an injury on the smooth studio floor.
If in any doubt, contact your dance instructor or the leader of the dance workshop you are enrolled on as many studios will have their own set of rules for guidance or at least be able to offer a recommendation.