“All dance has expression. If there is no expression, I prefer the circus. The performers do more dangerous, more difficult technical things than we do. But we are dancers. We have to express and we have to project.”
“So many dances leave me untouched, unmoved. A dancer should be able to raise an arm and make someone cry— in the way Isadora Duncan did. It is a necessity for any art to move you.”
Modern dance, also referred to as contemporary dance, originated in the early twentieth century as a genre of dance that focuses on a dancer’s own interpretations. Moreover, it requires far less structure than traditional ballet. The form came into existence after a group of dancers in Europe rebelled against the rigid rules of ballet. Unlike ballet, in which dancers wear leotards and tightly-fastened hair, modern dancers typically dance bare-footed, wear non-restrictive clothes, and are allowed to have free-flowing hair. Modern dance often tells a story or expresses an idea or emotion. According to “Legacy of The Moving Company,” a documentary about UNO’s modern dance ensemble made in 2008 as a centennial celebration of the university, an essential notion of modern dance is to use one’s body as an instrument of expression both scientifically and creatively. Modern dance pedagogy focuses on teaching dancers by encouraging experimentation rather than imitation.
The pictures below show some key differences between ballet dancers and modern dancers. Pictured on the left is Bret Samson, a ballet dancer from Ballet Nebraska, a new ballet company located in Omaha. Notice the slicked-back hair, tight corset-like leotard, and stiff tutu. Although Bret is not wearing these in the picture, ballet dancers typically wear pink tights and ballet pointe shoes as well (shown in the middle picture). In the picture on the right is Claire Guthrie, a student at Alvin Ailey Dance School in New York City, who contrasts Bret. As a modern dancer, she is able to dance with her hair down, shoeless, and in the clothes of her choice. In ballet, strict and specific body placement is required. There are many different leg, arm, and head positions that dancers must adhere to when working on technique. In modern dance, however, body placement is far less rigid. Modern dancers are allowed to move their bodies up and down and from side to side without hitting specific positions or movements.
For many people living in the Midwest, modern dance is not often taught as a foundational or required dance form. Traditionally speaking, ballet is the primary dance form taught and deemed necessary, followed by jazz and tap. Often times, dancers are not introduced to modern dance until they are college-age. In the last twenty years, however, modern dance has become more popular in studio settings all over the country, meaning more young dancers are discovering the form during their early education.
In many ways, modern dance can be viewed as feminist. For one thing, several of the key figures, leaders, and choreographers of modern dance have been women. These key leaders include but are not limited to Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Isadora Duncan. According to Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, men have always dominated classical ballet (Jones 423). When thinking about the big names in ballet, most people have heard of George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, or Mikhail Baryshnikov, but few can recite the names of women dancers. In addition, modern dance has disrupted the rigid restriction of other dance genres with its free movement and non-specific positions that women of all shapes and sizes can perform. As Amelia Jones explains, “Most important, modern dance has transformed the types of movement seen on the stage, abandoning the purity of the line