Sometimes, it’s easy to tell what something is by knowing what it is not. In the dance community, I’ve discovered that there are so many definitions of contemporary dance that it has become a debate among choreographers and dancers as to what contemporary dance is. As a student of dance myself, I can probably give my own definition of contemporary dance and someone else would tweak it or completely disagree. Whatever the case may be, contemporary dance is so broad that we need to know what it is not, to know what it is.
CONTEMPORARY DANCE IS NOT BALLET
When I first started dancing, a few years ago, a lot of people would ask me what style of dance I did and when I said contemporary, they would be confused. After several failed attempts of trying to explain what it was. I would just say, “Ballet, I do ballet” just to avoid embarrassing myself because I couldn’t explain what contemporary dance was. Then their faces would immediately light up followed by the slow realization, “ooohhh, you do ballet, that’s nice”. There was no other way of explaining it. Ballet was understood by a lot of people as a peculiar kind of dance done on the toes with lots of twirls. However, I learnt earlier on that contemporary dance incorporates ballet techniques into its movement. It’s easy to see why people would think contemporary dance is ballet, a lot of contemporary dance is rooted in ballet.
CONTEMPORARY DANCE IS NOT JAZZ
This was the one that shocked me the most. I received a video on Instagram from a well meaning friend of a beautiful dancer exploring moves in a sassy and confident way. Now, Jazz is very different. There’s a lot of sass and attitude to it. Even the music is different. But it still gets confused with contemporary dance (especially contemporary jazz, which is a whole ‘nother discussion). After my friend sent the video, he said, “I saw this contemporary dance and thought of you”. He had said contemporary dance on purpose because I had been very serious about the fact that contemporary dance was not ballet. I get very emotional about this topic with my friends so it was no surprise when he tried to prove that he knew what contemporary dance was. For most people, jazz is a sexy dance done barefoot with a lot of kicks and turns. You can see why it may be confused with contemporary dance. Contemporary dance also borrows technique from jazz but contemporary dance is not jazz.
CONTEMPORARY DANCE IS NOT GYMNASTICS
With the little knowledge I have in gymnastics, I am familiar with the kinds of gymnastics. Especially the ones performed at the Olympics. there is Artistic gymnastics and Rhythmic gymnastics. Artistic gymnastics involves the beams, the vaults, the poles with a whole lot of technicality and precision while rhythmic gymnastic involves a little bit of dancing and while executing your tricks and flips. Rhythmic gymnastics is often confused for contemporary dance because dancing is used in it. In certain choreographed routines, techniques have been borrowed from gymnastics to incorporate into contemporary dance but contemporary dance is not gymnastics.
CONTEMPORARY DANCE IS NOT CONTORTION
After putting blood and sweat into explaining how different ballet is from contemporary, there is a misunderstanding about contortion. Most people believe that since contortionists don’t wear shoes (ballet shoes), it must be contemporary dance. Contortion is the act and art of bending and twisting into an unusual shape or position. Contortion is not dance. It is a beautiful art, but it is not contemporary dance. The ability to stretch and bend in several ways is an advantage to a contemporary dancer though but it is not necessary to possess.
CONTEMPORARY DANCE IS NOT MODERN DANCE
There has been a lot of debate about this. Most people choose to believe that these two dance styles melt into each other. The difference is unclear. However, it is important to note that modern dance is a dance style that was created to rebel against ballet. The founders were against the strict and rigid nature of ballet and so they developed modern dance to be the direct opposite of ballet. Flat feet, bent knees, parallel feet and sometimes even sickled feet. Much of contemporary dance is rooted in modern dance. In fact, most people like to think that contemporary dance is a recent form of modern dance especially since contemporary dance incorporates so much of ballet, a dance style that modern dance was against.
Having said all of this, contemporary dance is an expressive style that incorporates ballet, modern dance, jazz, elements of gymnastics and contortion into itself to create a masterpiece. It has been so difficult to thoroughly state what contemporary dance is because this dance style has elements of several dance styles. So it is easy for a non dancer who is familiar with a particular dance style than contemporary dance incorporates and mistake it for ballet, or jazz, or modern dance or even gymnastic or contortion. Since the dance community is still divided about what contemporary dance is, I hope I was able to explain what it is not.