The Purpose of Modern Dance

Modern dance is one of the hardest genres to define by technique. Modern isn’t necessarily fast or slow or done to specific music, or any music. It doesn’t necessarily highlight specific physical skill or tell a story. It isn’t necessarily anything. And it can include everything. This is fine and great from the view point of many choreographers and dancers because in theory it gives them endless possibilities to play with.

The problem is that “endless possibilities” makes modern dance really hard to talk about and really hard for general audiences to understand. (This is important as they are the ones paying the bills.)

This identity crisis is understandable for an art form whose only purpose seems to be not do what was done before. Studios and even colleges often don’t have time to get into the theory of Modern dance. However, only those who take the time to learn where modern dance came from with have what it takes to give it a serious future.

Define the Purpose, Define the Genre

The heart of this problem has a lot to do with the fact that modern’s original purpose was very, very vague. Something like, “Push the boundaries set by ballet! Break the assumed rules and find a new way to move!” That is an inspiring place to start from, but a definition like “modern is movement that is different…” doesn’t give us much to work with.

As modern dance developed so did the purpose. Each era had its own twist on what the purpose of modern dance should be. And interestingly, each purpose has a surviving following today.

The Original Purpose

The beginnings of modern, fortunately, are well documented. We can read the thoughts of the founders to understand what the purpose of modern dance was for them. As we know, a strong purpose was opposition to the rules of ballet. Doris Humphrey talked about the very beginnings of modern dance:

“This is not to say that the ballet form was bad, but only that it was limited and suffered from arrested development- a permanent sixteen, the the Sleeping Beauty herself. So well established was the formula over so many hundreds of years that, as the twentieth century dawned with its flood of new ideas, there was considerable resistance to any change from the light love story and the fairy tale, and there still is.”(The Art of making Dances Doris Humphrey, p.15-16)
And as Hanya Holm put it, “You should not dance academically. It has no departure, no breath, no life. The academician moves within a group of rules. Two plus two are four. The artist learns rules so that he can break them. Two plus two are five. Both are right from a different point of view.”

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