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Modern dance is far more than whatever dance styles are popular at any given time. Instead, modern dance refers to formal, theatrical dance concerts, not participation dancing. Modern dance emerged in Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While many see the emergence of modern dance at that time as a rejection of classical ballet, such an explanation is an oversimplification.
American modern dance is divided into three periods.
- The Early Modern Period (1880-1923) saw the “New Dance” movement emerge in conjunction with a rise in physical education to combat some of the evils of industrialization. Isadora Duncan is remembered as the most famous dancer of this period.
- The Central Modern Period (1923-1946) was dominated by Martha Graham, who led the movement to find a uniquely “American” way of dance. Various schools of modern dance were formed, developing clearly defined techniques and training systems.
- The Late Modern Period (1946-1957) saw the growing influence of postmodernism and avant-garde.
African Americans adopted forms of modern dance to represent their culture. The work of Alvin Ailey, in particular, in creating the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York, revolutionized modern dance. Modern dance continues to hold popularity in American dance schools across the country. Its legacy continues in such performances as depicted on television’s Dance Moms.
Modern dance was also a forum which was used socially to change the perspective of the generations of the public. Pioneers, such as Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, broke color barriers long before the Civil Rights Movement brought change. Katherine Dunham was an African American who founded the first black Modern dance company called Ballet Negre which blended African and Caribbean movement with techniques of both ballet and modern dance in 1936. Pearl Primus created dance routines which were focused around the works of black writers and race issues in America in 1944 and 1945.
Women were not the only ones who delved into the political sphere with modern dance. Gay men also took center stage with Shawn and his Men Dancers who would all dance naked together. “For some gay men, though, Shawn and His Men Dancers was a triumphant model of a brotherhood enacting a nobler ideal of love and artistry”. Not all the men who were dancers were gay either but this was a forum in which openly gay men could express themselves to the world.
Modern dance became a forum for many different groups including Jewish women. Though many of the founders and pioneers were not Jewish, many Jewish women started to take the classes. These women began taking these classes during World War II. The reason why these women were drawn to the movement is because these women were the children of immigrants “, Jewish women battled anti-Semitism and politicized dance at a time when Americans were particularly concerned with expressing ideals of social justice and national renewal in their art.”
Techniques and ideas that were formed during the modern dance movement were taken even farther into the postmodern dance. The dance became more and more important. Postmodernists began to break all traditions of dance including taking the dance outside of the theatre and incorporating nondance movements. The concern in the dance went from social commentary to breaking down the barriers between art and life. Like many postmodern ideas, art not only imitated life but was life.
Modern dance has been a fluid part of the arena since the early 20th century and barriers between types of dance have been broken. Now, ballet incorporates modern dance techniques, themes, and stage effects into their dance. Many of the ideas that brought the movement to the forefront of dance society have permeated into other forms of dance. Political, social, and ethnic issues are now a very real part of the identity which dancers now incorporate. This movement was a very fundamental part of the art world of America for more than a century now. Like other forms of art such as music and painting, modern dance led some to understand some very real issues that effected American society and that still does. Dance truly does break barriers when it comes to showing people emotions and ideas.