What is contemporary dance? A breakdown of techniques and characteristics relevant to A-Level dance.

What is contemporary dance?
Is it like interpretive dance where you pretend to be a tree?
It is just what people do when they can’t do ballet?
Is contemporary dance the one where you roll on the floor?

These are genuine questions I have been asked, amongst many others, and as a student I wasn’t even sure of the answer, often babbling about how it’s like ballet but its not; it’s a fusion of styles but sometimes it’s not; it’s storytelling but not always; or reverting to the classic ‘it’s interpretive and can be anything you want it to be!’ Whilst not strictly true, there is a small amount of truth in every answer that we give as dancers. And perhaps this is why the style is so confusing to non-dancers and dancers alike, because it is such an ever-changing style.

The AQA A-Level Dance specification defines contemporary dance under ‘modern’:

“Modern dance: a form of theatrical dancing which began in the early 20th century, originally in opposition to the formality of ballet. As the dance form has developed, this distinction has become less evident. The term ‘modern’ has in some cases been replaced with other labels, eg contemporary.”


This in itself is fairly unclear, which only adds to the mystery of the style. There are many definitions provided online as to what contemporary dance is, but I really don’t think that every single artistic expression in the contemporary world can be boiled down to a few sentences, and so I will be referring to a small amount of the history of modern dance and inspecting 3 key techniques which are common to the contemporary dance world and will most likely be studied at A-Level: Graham technique, Cunningham technique, and Anatomical Release technique. Because no, contemporary dance is not just about rolling on the floor and flailing about.

Brief History of Modern/Contemporary Dance

Firstly, it is common to refer to ‘modern’ as the American version of the style, and ‘contemporary’ as the British version of the style, though you may find yourself in a modern dance class which teaches the same principles as a contemporary dance class so it isn’t always black and white. For the purpose of this article, I will use the following definitions:

Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance, primarily arising out of Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of or rebellion against, classical ballet. The founders of modern dance broke whatever rules had been laid down by their predecessors, which includes the likes of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

Wikipedia; Dance Advantage

Contemporary dance is a constantly transforming art form, which is not a technique in itself but a collection of principles regarding movement and the choreographic/performance process which are closely related to the goals of the original modern dancers and their techniques. Improvisation, kinetic awareness training and other release-based techniques are known to be important to the contemporary dancers training, amongst others.

Dance Advantage; ContemporaryDance
Isadora Duncan

Modern dance in America is known to have been pioneered first by Isadora Duncan, despite the fact that Martha Graham is often regarded as the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’. Duncan was a free-spirited woman, who was by no means a trained ballerina, but loved to dance to “rediscover the beautiful, rhythmical motions of the human body” (Duncan, nd). She believed that the soul came from the solar plexus – the soft place where the ribs begin to separate – and therefore that all movement must stem from that place and undulate outwards. She danced barefoot, wrapped in flowing togas and scarves, and was adored by female audiences in particular for her celebrations of independence and self-expression. Shortly after, the likes of Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn all contributed to the rebellion of ballet and personal exploration of movement which paved the way for American Modern dance, but clearly distinct modern dance techniques had not yet emerged.

What came next was a number of choreographers who sought to develop distinctively American movement styles and vocabularies, and recognizable dance training systems. Martha Graham was one of those pioneers and she is now recognised as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century due to her groundbreaking style and codified movement language. By codified, I simply mean that she created a technique which dancers can be trained in, which follows set exercises and has key principles of movement, which will be analysed later. Her style was a dramatic departure from the predominant style at the time and, as we know already through our study of Rambert Dance Company, her choreography and technique traveled to Britain in 1954 and slowly became the leading contemporary technique in Britain in the 60s. Other notable choreographers in this time period who developed their own systems, or codified languages, include Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey and Katherine Dunham.

The next generation of American choreographers paved the way for postmodern dance by experimenting even further to introduce clear abstractionism and avant-garde movements, steering away from expressionism, such as Merce Cunningham. Cunningham is considered one of the most important choreographers of our time because he was innovative, collaborative, and controversial. He is known for his unique relationship with music (disassociation), dance for camera, chance method choreography, and his notion of creating movement for movements sake. Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow and Paul Taylor are all noteworthy choreographers of this period.

Postmodern dance can be identified as the revolution of dance from the 1960s and is evident across America and Europe in particular. Whilst it encompasses a wide range of styles it tended to reject skilled and aesthetic movements in favour of natural anatomical experimentation, improvisation and pedestrian gesture such as walking and falling. In this sense, it valued movement for movements sake rather than expressive storytelling, and focused on relationships (or lack of) with music and set design. This was also coined as ‘New Dance’ in Britain and some key techniques emerged from this time period which define the structures and styles of our contemporary dance training today. This includes Mary Fulkerson’s Anatomical Release technique which I will inspect below, but other key techniques include Skinner Releasing Technique and Steve Paxton’s work with Contact Improvisation.

These key points in dance history have built the foundations of contemporary dance today, and contemporary artists may choose to train in one or multiple of these different techniques and styles. Some prefer the theatrical side of playing with set design and heavy characterisation through pedestrian gesture, others prefer to express an opinion or review history by capturing the audiences emotionally, and some prefer to play with the actual physics of movement, time and space to explore abstract themes. Below is a snapshot of 3 key techniques which you will come across when studying A-Level Dance and a break down of the characteristics of their styles.

Graham Technique

Graham Technique

This fantastic resource digs deep into Graham’s whole movement philosophy and explains the expression and drama behind her technique. Here, I will only identify the key characteristics of her style which are as follows:

  • Contraction and release of the torso
  • I often tell my students to visualise being punched in the stomach – it’s not very technical but can help you identify where this movement stems from as you engage the core muscles.
  • The release is an extension and often seen as a hyper-extension of the upper spine. This should sync with the breath.
  • Spiral and twist of the torso
  • Curve of the spine
  • Angularity in the shape of the arms and legs
  • Articulation of the rotation of the pelvis
  • Strength and a certain element of rigidity
  • As you can see from the photos, each muscle is being used to hold the body in these positions.
  • The core is engaged.
  • Dramatic and physical expression
  • Everything has a meaning and a motivation.
  • Movement stems from the torso and therefore appears expressive and emotional.
  • Flexed feet
  • Use of parallel
  • Use of traditional ballet positions of the feet, plié and relevé.

Many of these characteristics are recognisable in contemporary dance today and you are likely to have performed contract and release without knowing where it originally came from. In terms of the A-level Spec, multiple choreographers and named practitioners have either been trained by her or inspired by her and have taken her technique into their own choreography (Morrice, Tetley, North, Bruce…) therefore it is vital to understand the key characteristics of her style in order to identify them within choreographic works.

For further understanding, this BBC Martha Graham Step by Step is an excellent video resource which briefly demonstrates some aspects of the technique exercises you are likely to see in a Graham class. I always recommend that my students also follow @marthagrahamdance and @marthagrahamschool on Instagram too, which often post snapshots of a range of different levels of Graham classes and exercises.

Cunningham Technique

Cunningham has left an incredible legacy in many branches of contemporary art: performance, choreography, film, music and teaching. He was a member of Martha Graham’s dance company for 6 years, and his own works and technique opposes that of Graham’s, yet he has drawn from her spinal articulation, the precise legwork of ballet, and “stripped away the affectations of both, arriving at something more uncluttered“. My students often confuse Cunningham technique with his choreographic approaches of movement for movement’s sake, chance method and disassociation, so it is important to note that his ‘technique’ is a system of exercises and philosophy in which dancers can train in, much like ballet and Graham. This brief biography is a good resource to read to see an overview of his innovative accomplishments. His technique is rigorous and definitely requires “thinking dancers” because of the seemingly unnatural way in which they train to oppose the upper and lower halves of the body, and challenge their ability to travel in space through quick changes in facings and pathways.

The challenge, beyond pairing sudden swerves of the torso with the down-up-up rhythm of the feet, was to somehow travel forward in space, even as the movement resisted that pathway.

Siobhan Burke, The Times
Cunningham Technique
  • A strong sense of ones spine which explores the way that the back works in either opposition or unison to the legs
    • Curving
    • Tilting
    • Strongly held
  • Rhythmic accuracy through ‘frisky’ feet
    • Dynamic range of speeds
  • Use of ballet technique as a foundation
    • Turnout
    • Use of plié, relevé, fondu , tendu ect
  • Aesthetic clarity through the arms and legs:
    • Linearity
    • Curves
    • Angular shapes through ball-joint (hips) and hinge-joint flexion (knees and elbows) in turnout and parallel
  • Separating the torso from the pelvis to allow the legs and hip joints more freedom of movement
    • This develops great strength and stability in the joints, alongside flexibility and mobility
  • Also trains the mind:
    • Pushes boundaries and capabilities
    • Risk-taking
    • Develop complex abilities to move in space through an internal ‘front’
    • Co-ordination

Merce Cunninghams company had their first month-long tour in London in 1964, the period in which British dance was modernising and developing, but when analysing companies such as Rambert at A-Level, it didn’t seem to gain as great a traction as Graham technique did. Though we know that Richard Alston was a fan to say the least, and therefore it’s important to understand the characteristics of this technique in order to fully comprehend and analyse the changes that he made to Ramberts style during his artistic directorship.

An excellent resource for teachers and students is the CunningGraham filmed class on YouTube which explores and compares the two techniques.

Anatomical Release Technique

When you type in release technique online you will find a wide variety of different types across dance, sports and rehabilitation. For the purpose of A-Level study, I will break down the key concepts of Mary Fulkerson’s anatomical release technique, which Richard Alston merges with his love of Cunningham to create his own idiosyncratic style which developed Rambert Dance Company between 1986-1992.

Release technique is highly popular in contemporary training, with the key concepts being embedded many classes and universities without always labeling it as ‘release’. You will most likely have been taught how to roll up and down through the spine correctly, and how to release your weight into the floor, which stems from this technique. As the name states, it really focuses on working through the body anatomically; which means you learn to move within your natural range of motion and explore how the movement feels rather than how it looks. This reduces the risk of injury and encourages the student to explore and improvise with movement (especially floor-work) organically. Mary Fulkerson’s classes would focus on the following:

  • Exploring weight of the body and transfer of weight
  • Through rolling
  • Through shifting of weight
  • Through holding and moving weight in different parts of the body: the hands, the back, the feet
  • Practicing crawling, walking, running, falling, and the transitions between these patterns.
  • “Moving like a baby”
  • Starting on the floor and gradually rising in level
  • Mapping the body’s structure
  • Focus on alignment and natural stacking of the joints (roll downs)
  • Awareness of the natural routes of muscles and nerves
  • Understanding the body’s range of motion in the joints
  • Engaging the physical intelligence and creativity through improvisation and discovery
  • Engaging the mental capabilities
  • Concentration
  • Focus
  • Investigating your own thought process
  • Imagery and creative visualisation
  • Use of breath
Release Technique


Contemporary dance is a vast sea of techniques, practices and experiences and therefore everyone’s training in the genre is highly unique, which is the beauty of the genre as it naturally forces constant development and innovation. These techniques are only three of many, but three highly popular and revolutionary developments to movement and art.

The next time someone asks you what contemporary dance is, it may take you a while to explain, but I encourage dancers to take the time to highlight the amazing history and potential of the genre, and do not let others dismiss it as ‘easy’ or what somebody does ‘if they can’t do ballet’.


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