World History of the Dance

Unit 3 Study Guide

Modern dance began as a departure from the restrictions of ballet and a desire to express a wider palette of the human experience. It emphasized the expression of emotion, the exploration of dynamics in the body and presented narratives in a more abstract manner. Some modern dance pioneers eventually developed their own codification and/or process for working. The postmodern dancers rejected codification of any kind as well as known methods for composition. They valued personal movement, innovative forms of performance and preferred abstraction over story telling.

Pioneers of Modern Dance

Isadora Duncan 1877-1927, believed movement should be drawn from nature and was inspired by Ancient Greece, wearing long toga-like robes in her performances. The Duncan technique was comprised of movements such as hopping, swinging, running, skipping and leaping; her desire was to free the body from the confines of ballet.


Ruth St Denis 1878-1968, was inspired by the dances of Asia, in addition to other culturally based forms. She is well known for her grand spectacles, creating a formal school/company. Her husband Ted Shawn was also a pioneer in modern dance who created an all male dance company in addition to performing with Ruth. Martha Graham was a student Ruth St. Denis and later became a member of her company.

Ruth St Denis performing dances inspired by India and China


Mary Wigman 1886-1973, was a German dancer/choreographer inspired by Expressionism, an artistic movement that emphasized raw emotions. She was a student of Rudolf Laban. In her famous Witch Dance, she went against traditional norms of female beauty in dance.


Rudolf Laban 1879-1958, is sometimes referred to as the father of German modern dance; he developed a system for notating dance called Labanotation in addition to developing methodology for analyzing movement.


Martha Graham, 1894-1990, is well known for developing a technique based on the contraction and release of the center of the body. Inspired by Ruth St Denis, she left the company to create her own methodology, exploring raw emotion and narratives based on Greek mythology and the American experience.

Martha Graham (continued)



A Dancer’s World (Martha Graham documentary)


Second Wave of Pioneers

Jose Limon, 1908-1972, was a Mexican American whose work was influenced by his culture. He developed a technique influenced by his teacher/mentor Doris Humphrey, based on fall and recovery in addition to principles of weight. In The Moor’s Pavane, Limon looks back at dances of the Middle Ages/Renaissance, but uses his technique, theatricality and symbolism to create his own statement.

Jose Limon documentary


The Moor’s Pavane


Alvin Ailey, 1931-1990, created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in the 1950’s, an iconic dance company to this day. He strove to make dance more inclusive, giving opportunities for African American and other dancers of color. He choreographed the well known Revelations in 1960.


Dance Theatre in Germany

Kurt Jooss-1901-1979, a German dancer/choreographer who is known as the father of Tanztheater, (dance theatre). Jooss preferred themes that addressed moral issues. His most important choreographic work, The Green Table (1932), won first prize at an international competition. Made a year before Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, The Green Table had a strong anti-war message.

Green Table


Pina Bausch, 1940-2009, a German dancer/choreographer who continued the legacy of her teacher Kurt Jooss in developing the concept of Tanztheater, which combined elements of dance and theater. Bausch’s works display both classical and contemporary techniques with an emphasis on the expression of raw emotion. Her approaches were considered experimental, pushing the boundaries of dance.


Postmodern Dance

In postmodern dance, artists are interested in challenging the established codification of dance and developing new methodologies for creating work.

Steve Paxton, 1939- , is well known for creating a system of making dance called “Contact Improvisation” which uses the dynamics of the body and partnering with others to investigate new ways of moving.


Trisha Brown1940-2017, created intricate patterns of movement based on repetition and methodology which sought to generate the unique personal vocabulary of her dancers. In her famous work, Set and Reset, she creates a dance that has the vitality of improvisation, but is a completely set choreography.


Deborah Hay1941-, studied and performed with Merce Cunningham and was part of the experimental collective of dancers, Judson Dance Theater, based in NYC. She is known for working with both trained and untrained dancers, moving beyond the codification of dance and exploring new forms of dance composition. In working with dancers, she poses questions for them to explore in movement.

Figure a sea


Contemporary Dance in the 21st Century

Ohad Naharin, 1952-, is an Israeli dancer/choreographer. He created “Gaga,” a methodology for exploring new pathways for movement which uses imagery and body awareness. He was artistic director for the Bathsheva Dance Company until 2018 (currently he is the head choreographer). Naharin was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Ohad Naharin (continued)



Deca Dance


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