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Home > Dance History

A Short History of Modern Dance

History of Modern Dance

The artists of modern dance have been known to pride their selves on taking the polar opposite road than of ballet. Ballet is the story of organization, symmetrical movement, traditions of companies, theatres as well as individuals. Modern dance on the other hand, is almost entirely the story of the personalities, spirits, quirks and hearts of individual dancers who devise their own philosophies, and set their own unique styles. These styles evolve and are passed down to students who then break away to create something new and just as personal. Therefore, studying the history of modern dance is rather like tracing the story of an extended family through several generations.

Modern Dance in America

Modern Dance began in America early in the 20th century when the predecessors of the artists we know today, began their own rebellions against both the formality of ballet and the predictability of popular show dancing of the period.

Their techniques and styles were very different; what they had in common was dissatisfaction with the options then available to dancers and the ultimate goal of conveying to their audiences a sense of inner and outer reality – an aim that still inspires modern dancers today.

Modern Dance Pioneer Loie Fuller
Loie Fuller in La danse blanche.

The pioneers of modern dance in America can be attributed to Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St, Dennis, Ted Shawn and Maude Allan.

The First Generation of Modern Dance

During the 1920s, a passion for interpretive dancing swept America. The studies of excessive gesture had school children, college students and people all over the country performing a sort of simplified ballet in bare feet and flowing robes.

Isadora Duncan’s fame and Denishawn’s tours had introduced audiences and dancers alike to the concept of a new form of serious theatrical dancing. The ground work had been laid for the first generation of modern dancers who began developing the art as we know it today.

The first generation of modern dance: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Mary Wigman, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Oskar Schlemmer, Agnes de Mille, Gertrude Bodenweiser, Kurt Joos, Helen Tamaris and Lester Horton.

The Second Generation of Modern Dance

By the end of World War II the original founders of modern dance had produced a crop of talented students who, as children often do, dispensed with their ‘parent’s’ well-worn theories and set out to create their own kind of dance.

The great battle for position and respectability had been fought and won already; it was not necessary for the second generation to take themselves or their art with the same deadly seriousness that had characterized their predecessors.

modern dancers Alwin Nikolais
Alwin Nikolais’ avant garde dance demonstrates his love of striking shapes in costumes and scenery.

The second generation of modern dance: Erich Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, William Bales, Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Jean Erdman, Jose Limon, Ann Halprin, Sybil Shearer, Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetleym Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Anita Enters, Edwin Strawbridge Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Twyla Tharp and James Waring.

The Modern Generation

The social and artistic upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s signaled even more radical departures for modern dance. Modern dance today is much more sophisticated, both in technique and technology, than the dance begun by the founders. The founders composed their dances entirely of spirit, soul, heart and mind.

The concern with social problems and the condition of the human spirit is still there, but issues are presented with a theatricality that would have appalled many of the early modern dancers, so concerned with establishing themselves as serious artists.

Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

The essence of modern dance is to look forward, not back. The détente between ballet and modern dance looks as if it will continue to enrich both forms, but neither is likely to lose its identity in the process.

It is impossible to predict what directions modern dance will take in the future, but if the changes during the next 50 years are as radical as those that took place during the last 50, dance audiences can look forward to an interesting time.

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