Recently a group of instructors at the Community College where I teach shared opinions on what Contemporary Dance is (and isn’t) and how it relates to other dance genres. The opinions were all over the map. This prompted me to search the internet for answers – again.  I have been following the online discussion for over a decade.

If you Google “Contemporary vs. Modern Dance” you will find millions of entries about these two dance genres, many of which attempt to clear up the question of what the difference is. Another large volume of articles, blogs, blurbs. social media posts and videos seek to clarify the difference between Contemporary and Lyrical (formerly called “Lyrical Jazz”).

My online search raised more questions than answers.

I believe the definition of the dance genre known as “Contemporary” is to blame for this confusing state of affairs. Prior to about 2008 when So You Think You Can Dance introduced millions of viewers to Contemporary as a genre, “contemporary” in the dance world was firmly linked to the Cambridge Dictionary definition: “Existing or happening now”.

Without the context of the art world or the dictionary definition to anchor it, the Contemporary Dance genre is stranded in a vast sea of interpretations.

The label “Contemporary Dance” previously distinguished choreography that was cutting edge and new. It was consistent with the definition of Contemporary Art, just as Modern Dance was consistent with Modern Art. But Contemporary quickly morphed into a genre rather than a description of dance as an art form. A great deal of the online content focuses on the studio and competition genre while the remainder emphasizes Contemporary dance as an art form. But is that distinction clear to those searching for answers?

Contemporary isn’t the only culprit. Modern Dance is not as clearly defined as it once was. Anyone who has taken a Dance History course knows that Modern Dance was a movement that was part of the Modern Art movement that ended in the 1960s. So presumably, classes called “Modern” focus on the historical techniques spawned during this period. But, complicating matters, the dance community has taken liberties with the classes taught under the Modern banner over the past 50 years.

If the contemporary genre was generally new and innovative, we could hang our hats on that definition and call it a day. But, Contemporary as a dance genre quickly produced characteristic qualities of movement, standard moves and tricks that became staples of the genre. Many moves, although initially creative, were (and are) widely emulated by dancers, taught by teachers, demonstrated in YouTube videos and so forth. I dare say anyone reading this article is familiar with this signature vocabulary. As throngs of eager dancers latched on to this new dance form and copied each other, it tended to lose its freshness and became formulaic.

Without the context of the art world or the dictionary definition to anchor it, the Contemporary Dance genre is stranded in a vast sea of interpretations. It seems it can be whatever anyone says it is. Meanwhile, in college dance programs the original meaning of Contemporary Dance has been retained. That said, once you start exploring BFA programs, there is a lot of variation in program and class titles. But rest assured, classes called “Contemporary” in a BFA program are not a combination of ballet, modern and jazz (one of the prevalent definitions found online).

In universities, “Contemporary” is also nothing like lyrical, another notion suggested by the myriad comparisons of the two styles that are floating around the internet.  It was inevitable that parallels would be drawn given the trend of choreographing to lyrics in the contemporary genre. A recent analysis I ran across in a YouTube video mentioned that Contemporary tends to be “angsty”.  If for some, contemporary equates to angsty choreography to the lyrics, this sounds a lot like old school Lyrical to me. Saying that Contemporary is the new version of Lyrical seems overly simplistic to me, however… and not actually true.

These blurred lines have taken a toll - haziness between different genres is rampant and the dance world is flummoxed. Or so it seems to me. Granted, there have always been enormous differences between dance as taught in hometown dance studios aimed at pre-teens and teens and what is taught to college dance majors and at professional studios. The fact is that different styles of dance and different dance forms exist simultaneously in these two parallel universes.

Contemporary quickly morphed into a genre rather than a description of dance as an art form.

Dancers transitioning from High School to College may be in for big surprises as they discover what they understood about certain dance genres is flagrantly false according to their college instructors. Among other revelations, they will likely soon learn that what they thought of as “Contemporary” does not exist in the curriculum. In summary, confusion reigns and it is getting worse by the moment as more and more people try to explain things. Is there any way out of the weeds? In 2022 there is no putting the contemporary genie back in its bottle.

Nonetheless, I’d like to offer a few ideas that might help the dance world retrieve clarity… at least around the meaning of “Contemporary” Dance.

  • Dance educators at the studio and high school dance program levels - prepare your college-bound students for what to expect in a BFA dance program.
  • Everyone - go see high level professional Contemporary Dance companies and talk about dance as an art form. Parents - take your children to these performances.
  • Engage in thoughtful discourse, reflect on and question the information you hear.
  • Study art and dance history.

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