Modern vs. Contemporary Dance


Parents often ask me, as a teacher and studio owner, when their child can take contemporary dance class. “Contemporary” as a dance term has become more popular since So You Think You Can Dance became a hit TV show, but just what is contemporary dance?

Dance Magazine recently asked 10 dance professionals this same question. (You can read the original Dance Magazine article here.) Their answers were as varied as contemporary dance itself.

At my studio I continue to offer the traditional dance styles; ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and more recently, hip-hop. Yet I’ve been reluctant to change my modern class to a ‘contemporary’ class or add additional classes called contemporary to the weekly schedule. The reason is that contemporary has little meaning other than to describe any style that doesn’t fit into the traditional dance categories or techniques.  Indeed, ‘contemporary’ is the term used for many combinations of techniques.  A mix of ballet and modern could be called contemporary or a combination of jazz and ballet, as could adding hip hop or ballroom elements to other styles.

One result of the confusion is that teaching contemporary dance alone robs young dancers of foundation techniques and skills. The best contemporary dancers have a strong base in the traditional styles with polished technique.  They then combine their experience and skills to create “contemporary” pieces that are new and exciting.  The foundation in the traditional dance makes this possible.

When Dance Magazine asked Glenn Edgerton, Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago about the difference between modern and contemporary dance, he said “There’s no clear distinction between the two. My thoughts are that it’s all an extension of classical ballet.”
With few exceptions, traditional styles of dance most often are either direct descendents of or heavily influenced by ballet.  To this dance teacher,  it is clear that almost all dancers improve in any style of dance if they have extensive ballet training.

So what is contemporary after all?  Benoit-Swan Pouffer , Artistic director, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, New York City, says “For me, ‘contemporary’ means what’s happening today, now. That’s why we put ‘contemporary’ in our name…. Because I’m from Europe, when we hear the word ‘modern’—we think about a major technique coming from America—Limón, Horton, Graham, the dancemakers that shaped what we are today.”

Mia Michaels , Choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and various pop stars adds this final note:  “I’m a little responsible for So You Think You Can Dance co-opting the term ‘contemporary.’ When we first started the show, Nigel [Lythgoe] was calling it lyrical. I said, ‘It’s not lyrical, it’s contemporary.’ We’ve created a monster. Contemporary is an easy way out—it’s when you don’t know what to call it, you call it contemporary. I feel like dance is fusing all the forms and that the uniqueness of each genre is starting to be muddled. It feels regurgitated and I want it to change desperately. I’m wanting to see where these new legends and voices—like Fosse, Robbins, Graham—are going to pop up.”

Me too, I’m waiting to see what will develop. Until ‘contemporary’ means something substantial, I will keep my traditional class styles and keep my eye on the dance scene.  Meanwhile, one thing is clear–the dancers and choreographers at the forefront continue to use the traditional styles as their foundation and now they’re even giving adult dance lessons as well!

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Read the original Dance Magazine article here.

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