Defining the Indefinable: Modern Dance

Article excerpt

Is it possible to construct a comprehensive and accurate definition of the unique art form that we call "modern dance"? Just what is it that constitutes the distinctive character of this most contemporary of all dance forms? This tantalizing challenge has seemingly confounded dancers and dance critics ever since this constantly evolving dance form first appeared.


Selma Jean Cohen in her Seven Statements of Belief was one of the first writers to explore the definition of modern dance by asking those in the modern dance field to write about it. As she observed, "In 1933, John Martin (who was then, and would be for many years to come, the dance critic of the New York Times) stated that the modern dance was a point of view. It was movement devised not for spectacular display, as was the ballet; not for self-expression, as was the interpretive dance current at that time, but it was movement made 'to externalize personal, authentic experience'" (Cohen, 1966, p. 4). Modern dance, she added, "externalized--projected, communicated--an emotion that was not only personal, but 'authentic.' The choreographer felt the emotion deeply, but--further--was convinced that, by revealing his experience, he was also revealing a basic truth" (Cohen, p. 5).

This definition does indeed seem to capture what the early pioneers were doing, by divorcing from classical ballet and "interpretive" dance and creating dance based on their own "authentic," personal experience. These choreographers' works were reflective of the changing world and society in which they lived. In 20th-century dance, in companies such as Pilobolus and Momix, we see a great deal of virtuosity and even elaborate set designs, but much less of the emotion described by Martin and Cohen. It would be ideal, if possible, to find a more concrete way of defining modern dance that encompasses its development through all of its stages.

Another leading reference work, Grove Music Online, states that "[t]he term 'modern', or 'contemporary,' dance is applied to any of the styles and techniques of theatrical dancing, intended for independent presentation, that grew up during the 20th century as an alternative to the strict disciplines of classical ballet" (Harris-Warrick, Goodwin, & Percival, 2008). This definition seems to connect modern dance with its initial historical roots, but it is not a timeless definition. The expansive evolution of modern dance, since it was begun by its early forerunners and pioneers, has been much more far-reaching and revolutionary than the confines of this definition would suggest.

Defining dance in general terms allows us to probe more deeply into understanding the meaning of modern dance. Highly respected dance anthropologist Joann Keali'inohmoku defines dance as "a transient mode of expression, performed in a given form and style by the human body moving through space. Dance occurs through purposefully selected and controlled rhythmic movements: the resulting phenomenon is recognized as dance both by the performer and the observing members of a given group" (Keali'inohmoku, 1983, p. 541). If this description is sound, it is questionable whether it is broad enough to encompass the scope of everything we associate with modern dance. Is modern dance completely distinct as a genre of dance, or is it so nonconformist that it completely resists and defeats the traditional definitions of dance?

Although I doubt Keali'inohomoku specifically had modern dance in mind when tendering this popular definition of dance, it still seems as though modern dance should easily fit in the broader definition of dance itself. Her definition seemingly suggests that dance is formal. If we are to assume that modern dance is a form of dance under her definition, then we would have to refute that assumption based on the fact that much dance in the 1960s was rather informal and performed in natural settings. …