Modern dance is still so new!

Hitting the year 2010 has made me (along with everyone else) think about the changes that have occurred in the U.S. in the last decade and century as well as what is to come in the future. For some reason I keep thinking how weird it will be in only a couple decades when I’m still enjoying classic movies from the 1920’s & ‘30’s, movies that will be 100 years old. Of course my thoughts turned to modern dance, and it struck me that the whole art form came into being not that long ago. On one hand, “modern dance” as we know it is almost 100 years old; but on the other hand, “modern dance” is not even 100 years old!

 And now, a look back into history:

 Don McDonagh begins the Preface for the International Dictionary of Modern Dance with: “Unlike the popular forms of social or folk dance and court-derived ballet, serious concert dance outside these traditions had no existence prior to the last decades of the 19th century.” In 1839, Francois Delsarte of France began his teachings on new ideas for movement and expression, heavily influencing many in the performing arts around the world. But it wasn’t until the 1880’s and ‘90’s that a handful broke away from folk dance and ballet to develop their own movement form and perform locally – most notably Loie Fuller of the U.S. and Sada Yacco of Japan. Then came what most texts agree to be a defining moment in concert dance. Fuller and Yacco performed at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1900, sharing their dance forms with a global audience and directly influencing other dancers, including Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. Both St. Denis and Duncan began performing and touring through the beginning of the 20th century along with many other artists worldwide (Fuller, Yacco, Ted Shawn, Maud Allan, Grete Wiesenthal, Rudolf Laban, Margaret Morris, et al.).

 While all of these forerunners were linked by expressive movement, rejection of ballet limitations, and serious artistic intent, the term “modern dance” was not yet being applied to the new form. They referred to their work as “classic,” “aesthetic,” or “interpretive” dance, or simply “dance art.” The name “modern dance,” and perhaps the form that is considered more ancestral to contemporary modern dance, did not develop until the 1920’s when the successive generation of dancers and choreographers took the stage. A significant year (at least in America) for this group of modern dance pioneers was 1926 when Martha Graham’s company first performed in New York. Through the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, many choreographers (including Humphrey, Weidman, Tamiris, Holm, Dunham, Horton, Wigman, and Jooss) toured the U.S. and abroad with works that continued to develop the art form of dance.

 And so, whether you consider 1900 or the 1920’s as the beginning of modern dance, it should still be noted that the genesis for this whole new art form was really not that long ago. From this reflection, more questions seem to emerge. What would the originators think of modern dance today? Has the form fundamentally changed since its formation? And of course, considering that the form is still young, what does the future hold for modern dance? Personally, what I take from this foray into history is appreciation for how far the form has come in such a short time and excitement for where it can go. I will use this reminder to not get discouraged by the current place of dance in the world, but to continue working toward its vast potential.

Sources: International Dictionary of Modern Dance, Dancing Women: Female Bodies On Stage

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome. It is important to remember this! I often get frustrated by the fact that I don’t even know how to describe modern dance to people who ask. A rebellion to ballet? That’s how it began but it has grown to be so much more!

    We have so much more to explore…


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  • Meagan Bruskewicz

  • Dance is the hidden language of the soul.
    -Martha Graham

    One of my aims is to present questions rather than answers. -Paul Taylor

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