What is Contemporary Dance?


Cue that feeling of dread. Too many words flying through my mind, fleeing from being said. The nervous laugh, the umming and ahing…

So what terrible thing has happened to cause my usually coherent mind to crumble? Someone has again asked me the question: ‘what is contemporary dance?’

Ok, so that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Yet this is one of the questions I dread the most. When someone who has little or no dance knowledge asks me to explain contemporary dance, just how do I label it? How can I explain it, without that old annoying comment: “is it all like become the tree?

So what is the answer? What is contemporary dance? Let’s see what the go-to web guru that is Wikipedia says about it…

“Contemporary dance is a popular form of dance which developed during the middle portion of the twentieth century and has since grown to become one of the dominating performance genres for formally trained dancers throughout the world, with particularly strong popularity in the U.S. and Europe”

…Right. Well that explains everything… This explanation, whilst of course correct, does not actually give any indication as to what contemporary dance looks like, what sort of movement it is, there is nothing to give a non-dancer any ideas or images they can relate to.  If you read further on Wikipedia, it does go into more detail, but as an opening definition, it doesn’t exactly grab the imagination.

About .com goes straight in for a more descriptive definition:

“Contemporary dance is a style of expressive dance that combines elements of several dance genres including modern, jazz, lyrical and classical ballet. Contemporary dancers strive to connect the mind and the body through fluid dance movements”

Whilst this gives a lot more insight, and references styles that most non-dancers will recognise, it still lacks in creating an image that really reflects all that contemporary dance is. I often find myself saying “it is like ballet, but not like ballet”, which is of course a contradiction, and woefully inadequate, but friends who ask me this question rarely want to sit down for a 10 minute history, style and aesthetic debriefing to get their answer. To me, contemporary dance is so many things, maybe it is easier to say what it is not?

When viewing contemporary dance as a genre, we picture a specific style, but this is not the same for every individual. With so many prominent historic figures, techniques and such freedom with artistic licence, perhaps contemporary dance is something so multi-faceted and varied that it doesn’t fit in one definition.

When I think of contemporary dance I think of creative freedom, pushing boundaries, gravity, breathtaking imagery, intricate gestures, complex v simple, strength, art, movement v stillness…heart. I literally could go on and on.

How can I translate these into some sort of description for a non dancer? Here lies my biggest stumbling block…help!

Other people have recognised my problem. Whilst I was considering writing this, The Place commissioned this fantastic film. It explains a lot… if I could carry this clip around with me and show every person who asked me about contemporary dance, it would save me a lot of trouble… if you have a spare moment, it is definitely worth a watch.

Do you share my dilemma? How do you describe contemporary dance? What does contemporary dance mean to you?

Origianlly posted February 17, 2015.