top of page

What is contemporary dance?

Claire Louise Niesyto-Bame

19 Dec 2020

What is contemporary dance? Anyone interested in the world of contemporary dance has most likely asked or been asked this question. Despite having obtained a degree in contemporary dance and trained since the age of fifteen, I have yet to meet someone who could tell me exactly what it is.

The contemporary dance world is such a wonderful space for artistic and philosophical exploration, in which so many have found the courage to physicalise and fight important issues present in the world today. But for some reason the definition of contemporary dance is suspended in a misunderstanding of its own philosophy. I believe this is due to the lack of definition for the genre; is it even a genre at all? In this article I attempt to tackle the big question of what is contemporary dance and extend its definition to include a more diverse perspective of contemporary culture.

One definition from Maria del Pilar Naranjo Rico claims that contemporary dance is, ‘Art whose working material is the movement of humans. It doesn’t have fixed or established movement patterns but it’s rather in a continuous search for new forms and dynamics. Therefore its dancers make use of varied modern and classical dance techniques to train. It produces performances or shows in conventional and non conventional stages (such as theatres of public and private places), having a frequent dialogue with other aesthetic languages such as audiovisual technologies, visual or fine arts, lighting, architecture, music, circus and others.’ This compelling definition has succeeded in expressing what contemporary dance is by describing it as an umbrella term for many forms of dance. Although helpful in allowing us to understand the breadth of the term, we have yet to investigate the influences of contemporary dance and its historical significance, in order to figure out what it means today.

Contemporary dance was birthed out of a desire to rebel against the strict conventions of ballet. To break convention, explore the limits of the human physique and discover a broader definition of what beauty could look like. This involved incorporating less idealised expressions of the human experience and was inspired by movement practices from around the world. For example, Isadora Duncan (one of the original pioneers of contemporary dance) notoriously rejected ballet as the pinnacle of contemporary expression, replacing it with Greek philosophy, literature and art, which she used instead as inspiration for her work. Ruth St Denis also paved the way for contemporary dance through her fascination with Egyptian and Hindu philosophies. Contemporary dance is clearly a very broad term, one which takes inspiration from cultures around the world and yet has little definition when standing on its own two feet. And so, I pose the question, how can the community of contemporary dance continue to push the boundaries?

By definition, contemporary means characteristic of the present period. And what are the dances of the present period? Hip hop, afrobeats, dancehall, heels, vogue and krump, to name a few, are just some of the most popular dance forms being practiced today, and yet none are considered contemporary dances. Despite being highly creative and philosophical, as well as rebellious in the same way contemporary is supposed to be, the contemporary dance industry excludes these dance forms from the umbrella of contemporary dance. So what is the difference, for example, between hip hop and contemporary dance? Hip hop was birthed out of the oppression of black people in the South Bronx of New York, a community of people deeply affected by neglect from the government and mainstream institutions. Despite tensions amongst some community members, people eventually resorted to creativity to battle out their disagreements through dance, music and art instead of turning to violence. Contemporary dance, however, was birthed out of a rebellion against the strict conventions of ballet, a dance form characteristic of white aristocratic social ideals. Hip hop and contemporary dance are both rebellious and liberating by nature. However, the communities they have grown from are not the same.

Although open minded in some ways, contemporary dance is still stuck in a predominantly white and middle-class view of the world. The contemporary dance community therefore has work to do in terms of recognising and respecting the contribution made by black people and other cultures from around the world who have inspired, and in many instances created, what is now known as contemporary dance, as well as appreciating the development of those cultures as seen today, such as hip hop. The contemporary dance community’s exclusion of dances and dance work from black people leads me to ask if contemporary dance is still concerned with the freedom and diversity of beauty it first set out to portray.

Some of the most current dances of our time include breaking, popping, house, hip hop, krump, waacking, vogue, litefeet, dancehall, pantsula, afro/afrobeats and heels. All of these styles, although increasingly popular amongst the public, are not academically considered to be contemporary dances, despite their foundations being from as recent as the 2000s in the case of Litefeet. As it stands today, none of the above dance forms are currently taught in British schools, universities, conservatoires, youth dance companies or outreach programmes as contemporary dance. What we do see however is a general practice of ballet, which originates as far back as the 1300s in France and Italy. Ballet undoubtedly stands in its own right as a traditional western classical dance form, but it’s not a contemporary dance as it is no longer characteristic of society in the present period. Alongside teachings of ballet we have practices of dance from the Postmodern era such as Jose Limon, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as well as a few more recent practitioners such as David Zambrano, Josef Frucek and Ohad Naharin. There is some progression in the dance forms taught under the term contemporary dance today to include black artists and cultures from outside Europe, the UK and America. However, the contemporary dance community as it stands still doesn’t sufficiently accept dance forms from those cultures into its spaces in a way that allows them ownership over their own creative work . Hip hop and afro dances are the most current developing dances today, with new moves and forms being innovated constantly. I hope that contemporary dancers, choreographers, and artists will begin to accept these dance forms as being as important as the dances from the Post Modern era which currently linger in their place.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and a greater sharing of information over social media, industries and sectors are under greater pressure to be more inclusive and seriously reconsider their structures and approaches. The contemporary dance community has just as much responsibility as any other part of society. In the same way that many of us are now petitioning for British colonial history and black history to be taught in schools, I urge the contemporary dance scene to find a way to make sure that this is integrated into our teachings of contemporary dance too. Because until all contemporary dances are respected with the integrity by which they have been created, our representation of contemporary society through dance will continue to be limited to exclusively white and middle-class centred experiences, desires and developments.

So, on this quest to define contemporary dance, I have revealed a fatal flaw in its diversification of beauty and freedom of expression. The lack of recognition of artwork from black people is directly linked to the racist ideas we have passed down generation to generation in the UK. Black people in particular have been oppressed physically, mentally and economically by British society for generations and yet have still created their own stages on the street, in clubs and just about anywhere there is space to express freely. In the same way that contemporary dance was birthed, street dances are a rebellion from the hardships of everyday reality in today’s divided society. Despite seeing a rise in hip hop theatre in the contemporary dance industry, street dance styles including hip hop are yet to be taught in conservatoires, universities, youth dance companies and other contemporary dance education programs as contemporary dances. There is now one university in London with an urban dance practice degree course, which is a great start. But this does not tackle the lack of appreciation for street dance forms as contemporary dances, equally valuable in showing the experiences of contemporary society. In order to create that equality, we should include street dances in dance history, academia and theatre as much as other contemporary dance forms. This cultural discrimination within the UK seems to be a key factor in why we are currently unable to answer the question what is contemporary dance.

Contemporary dance is what we make it. It is a rebellion against oppressive conventions. So I ask my fellow dancers, choreographers and dance lovers to reflect both collectively and individually on how we can all contribute to a more inclusive and honest portrayal of contemporary society through dance.

by Claire Louise Niesyto-Bame Published 19/12/2020

bottom of page