Modern emerged in the 19th century when ballet had previously dominated the dancing world, receiving its widespread success in the 20th. It is a style of dance that emerged as a reaction to the strict rules of classical ballet. 

According to historians, modern has two main birthplaces: Europe (specifically Germany) and the United States. Each rebelled against the rigid formalism and superficiality of classical ballet with the aim to inspire audiences to a new awareness of inner or outer realities. Some historians have suggested that socioeconomic changes in both the United States and Europe helped to initiate the shifts in the dance world. In United States, the increasing industrialisation created the rise of a middle class with more disposable income and free time, while the decline of Victorian social structures in Europe led to many changes such as a new interest in overall wellbeing.

Although Modern evolves as a concert dance form, it has no direct roots with any ballet companies or academic institution. Modern dance emerges as a consequence of its time, alone and per choreographer.

Ideological Contributions

François Delsarte 1864

François Delsarte (1811 – 1871), a French singer and coach was considered as a precursor by modern dance history as he invented a theory on the relationship between human movement and feelings. He concluded that each emotion will correspond a movement and the source of dance comes from inside the dancer. His idea boosted one of the main ideological components of modern dance: inner feelings and intensity as the cause of movement and quality.


Emile Jaques Dalcroze

Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865 – 1950), a Swiss composer, pianist, educator and conductor who invented a new approach to movement called Eurhythmics; an approach to studying and experiencing music through movement. His teaching used the body to express musicality and delivered his discoveries in his school, Institution of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, mainly to musicians and not for dancers. However, his approach reached some of the most important modern dance figures of the time, like V. Nijinsky (through Marie Rambert), Mary Wigman and Rudolph Laban.

The Pioneer of Modern Dance

Isadora Duncan 1915–1918 American tour

Isadora Duncan (1877 – 1927), an American dancer who performed to great acclaim throughout Europe was a prime predecessor of modern dance and was largely self‐taught. She thought that ballet was ugly and meaningless. She created a vocabulary of basic movements to heroic and expressive standard as dance is the expression of her personal life. She discarded the corset, slippers, ballet tutu and adopted tunics. She stressed on the torso, bare feet, loose hair, free-flowing costumes, and humor expression. She created her dances around nature such as waves, clouds, wind and trees. She abstracted the emotions induced by the music from which she translated its emotions with composers Beethoven, Wagner, and Gluck. She was also inspired by classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, natural forces, and new American athleticism such as skipping, running, jumping, leaping, and abrupt movements. Duncan established her first school of dance just outside of Berlin, where she began to develop her theories of dance education and to assemble her famous dance group, Isadorables. Her contribution is not considered so much in terms of technique but mostly on the means for the cultural process of opening minds. Although she returned to the United States at various points in her life, her work was not well received there. She returned to Europe and died in Nice in 1927. 

Loie Fuller

Loie Fuller (1862 – 1928), an American actress turned dancer whom first gave the free dance artistic status in the United States. She used dance to imitate and illustrate natural phenomena, movement and improvisation techniques: flame, flower, butterfly. She experimented with the effect of theatre’s gas lighting equipment, and patented her apparatus and methods of stage lighting that included the use of coloured gels and burning chemicals for luminescence as well as her translucent voluminous silk stage costumes. Fuller having little dance training, her main concern was not dance, storytelling or expressing emotions, but rather emphasised on visual effect. She is acknowledged by modern dance history for her great contribution in new possibilities of scenic illusion, thanks to the use of the development of electricity.

Ruth St. Denis

Ruth St. Denis (1879 – 1968) was an American modern dance pioneer, introducing eastern ideas into the art. She was raised and encouraged to perform from a young age. She grows within an ideological ambience of oriental religions, which reflected in her choreography. She believed that dance could transcend into the spiritual realm and experimented with dance forms that derived from the religious influences of Asia, India and Egypt. She relied on elaborated costumes to evoke mystical feelings where female dancer are priestess, which contrasts with the dancer as a woman of little virtue. She debuted as a skirt dancer, what was then a rather indecent form of dancing because of the woman’s legs being briefly visible. Her distinctive dance style combined spiral form with equal parts voluptuousness, mysticism and erotica. Despite local opposition, St. Denis’ new style of dancing was a hit, particularly in Europe where she built a stunning career as a soloist and in 1914, married a professional and partner, Ted Shawn.

Ruth St Denis & Ted Shawn 1916

Ted Shawn (1891 – 1972) successfully achieved the formal teaching of modern dance. He was the first notable male pioneers of American modern dance, who became Ruth St. Denis partner and husband in 1914. He promoted and innovated masculine movement with the first company composed by men only. He toured around the United States and attracted many young people from the high intellectual level. In 1915 St. Denis and Shawn formed the The Denishawn School and helped increased the popularity of modern dance throughout the United States and abroad, and nurtured the leaders of the second generation of modern dance such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. To add to St. Denis’ mainly eastern influence, Shawn brought the spirit of North African, Spanish, American and Amerindian influence to the table. St. Denis was responsible for the creative work, and Shawn for teaching technique and composition. Though St. Denis and Shawn had a stormy relationship, both on and offstage, what they accomplished together had a lasting impact.

Early Modern – The First Generation of Modern Dance

During the 1920s, a passion for interpretive dancing swept America. Duncan’s fame and Denishawn’s tours had introduced audiences and dancers alike to the concept of a new form of serious theatrical dancing. During this period, artists began developing and codifying new dance techniques. This first generation included Rudolf Laban, Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Francois Delsarte, Charles Weidman, Agnes de Mille, Lester Horton and many others.


Laban School in Berlin 1929

Rudolf Laban (1879 – 1958), an Austro-Hungarian Empire dance artist and theorist founded a school in Munich 1910 at which Mary Wigman was one of his students. Exiled in the 1930s, he immigrated to England, where he established the Art of Movement Studio 1946 in Manchester and worked until his death on his system of notation. His notation, Labanotation, is the most complete and effective system for analysing and writing movement, created till time. He opened a completely new theoretical frame for movement shape and quality analysis. Anne Hutchinson Guest brings his movement notation system to the United States, where it is now taught in many institution for high level dance education.

Mary Wigman School 1959

Mary Wigman (1886 – 1973) was a German dancer and choreographer, notable as the pioneer of expressionist dance, dance therapy, and movement training without pointe shoes. She opposed radically to classical dance values and methods. She performed in Germany after studying with Laban and opened her own, Wigman School 1920 in Dresden which was closed by the Nazis but reopened in Berlin 1948. Mary Wigman choreography often employed non-Western instrumentation such as bells, gongs, percussion and drums from Asia and Africa. She used fundamental human emotions, relationships, superstitions, and ecstatic spinning in her choreography. Her costumes were simple, made with dark rough fabrics, and often included masks. Her dance pieces are tragic with dark characters, as well as vibrant, excited and passionate. Her choreographic work and thought are considered as part of the artistic trend called German expressionism or “Ausdrückstanz”. She created several schools and among her renowned students are Hanya Holm, Harald Kreutzberg, Gret Paluca and Kurt Joos.

Hanya Holm (1893 – 1992) was born in Germany and studied at the Institution of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze and, later learn and teach with Mary Wigman’s Wigman School. She launched Wigman branch in New York City 1931. Holm had a unique form of technique that shaped generations of dancers and choreographers including Alwin Nikolais, Mary Anthony, Valerie Bettis, Don Redlich, Alfred Brooks, Liz Aggiss and Glen Tetley. Her technique stressed the importance of body’s relation to space and emotion, which was an extension of Wigman and Laban. For example, the pulse, planes, floor patterns, aerial design, direction, and spatial dimensions. Holm’s movement emphasised the freedom and flowing quality of the torso and back, but remained based on universal principles of physics for motion. Her choreographic regularly use improvisation and with absolute dance without pantomime or dramatic overtones in which, conveying an idea in her choreography was far more important than dancers’ technical ability. Her theatre work achieved a rare degree of dramatic and choreographic fusion. In 1936, in response to rising antifascist sentiment, it was renamed the Hanya Holm School of Dance. She choreographed successfully on Broadway with dances for Kiss Me, Kate (1948), My Fair Lady (1956), and Camelot (1960).

Intermediate Modern – The Second Generation of Modern Dance

Martha Graham 1948

Martha Graham (1894 – 1991), an American dancer began studying at Denishawn. During the next seven years, Graham evolved from a student, to a teacher, to one of the company’s best‐known performers. Martha Graham began to open up fresh elements of emotional expression in dance and focuses on contraction, release and spiral. She found the breath pulse as the primary source of dance; exaggerating the contractions and expansions of the torso and flexing of the spine caused by breathing. She devised a basis for movement that represented the human being’s inner conflicts. Graham explored themes from Americana, Greek mythology, and the Old Testament. She viewed music merely as a frame for dance. In 1926,  Martha Graham founded her dance company and school, living and working out of a tiny Carnegie Hall studio in midtown Manhattan. It is now known for being the oldest American dance company.

Doris Humphrey & Charles Weidman 1933

Doris Humphrey (1895 – 1958) was American dancer and choreographer of the early 20th century, and creator of the technique known as fall and recovery; an original dancing technique by observing the relationship between gravity and human body; the arc between balance and imbalance of the moving human body, represented one’s conflicts with the surrounding world. She taught extremely important technical notions like weight, rebound, suspension and the importance of breath. She studied at the Denishawn school in Los Angeles, where her teaching and creative abilities were quickly recognised. Doris Humphrey emphasised craftsmanship and structure in choreography, also developing the use of groupings and complexity in ensembles. Her work has an unerring sense of form, as well as an interest in large‐scale abstract works. Her book, The Art of Making Dances (1959), was based on her theories about dance composition. Humphrey experimented more with sound; in a 1924 work she discarded music altogether and performed in silence, and later she used nonmusical sound effects, including spoken texts and bursts of hysterical laughter. Her themes were social and often heroic in scale, e.g., the trilogy New Dance (1935), which treats human relationships.

Charles Weidman

Charles Weidman (1901 – 1975) an American dancer was inspired to become a dancer at fifteen after seeing Ruth St. Denis during a touring performance. In 1920, he received a scholarship to spend the summer studying at the Denishawn school in Los Angeles. Before the session had ended, Weidman was hired as a dancer for the Denishawn company. Weidman brought a very masculine approach to dancing that drew other men to the art form. His kinetic pantomime and abstract movement added remarkable appeal to his dances. In 1928 Charles Weidman together with Doris Humphrey formed the Humphrey‐Weidman Studio and Company in New York. Weidman’s movements were abstracted from everyday situations provided a different kind of social commentary from comedy to seriousness, and created a new style of dance by rejecting ballet and embracing gravity. He established the Charles Weidman Theater Dance Company after Doris Humphrey retired from performing in 1945. In his company he trained famous choreographers such as José Limón, Bob Fosse and Louis Falco.

Agnes de Mille

Agnes de Mille (1905 – 1993) had a love for acting and originally wanted to be an actress, but was told that she was not pretty enough, so she turned her attention to dance. She made her solo debut in New York in 1928. In the 1930s in London, she studied with Marie Rambert, danced in the premiere of Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (1937), and worked on concert pieces that inspired her successes of the 1940s. Among these was Rodeo (1942), the Americana classic she choreographed for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the dances for the Broadway musical Oklahoma! (1943). Oklahoma! was a turning point in Broadway history, and required training in ballet and modern dance. During the 1940s de Mille created a number of works for Ballet Theatre that revealed the light touch of her Broadway choreography and the interest in American material that inspired her to form the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theatre in the 1970s. A gifted writer, she is the author of several books, including a highly‐regarded biography of Martha Graham.

Lester Horton

Lester Horton (1906 – 1953) studied at the Denishawn School, besides having early classes in ballet and Native-American dance. The Lester Horton Dance Group first appeared in 1932 and became noted over the ensuing two decades for an individual technique and theatrical style that embraced themes of social and political protest. Horton developed his own approach to dance that incorporated diverse elements including Native American Folk Dance, Japanese arm gestures, Javanese and Balinese isolations for the upper body, particularly the eyes, head and hands, Afro-Caribbean elements, like hip circles. Horton Technique has no style and emphasises a whole body, anatomical approach to dance that includes flexibility, strength, coordination and body and spatial awareness to enable unrestricted, dramatic freedom of expression. Highlights of his repertory include at least six versions of Oscar Wilde’s erotic Salome, Le Sacre du Printemps (1937). Horton also choreographed commercial projects and created the dances for Hollywood films. His students included Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham.

Development  – The Third Generation of Modern Dance

By the end of World War II, young choreographers had begun breaking the rules of the modern dance establishment, creating dances that had no theme, expressed no emotion, dispensed with the dance vocabulary of fall and recovery, contraction and release. This generation of modern dance included artists such as Sybil Louise Shearer (1912 – 2005)’s random fantasies, Erick Hawkins’s impressionistic soft rhythms, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, José Limón, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey, Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, and Twyla Tharp.


Merce Cunningham 1957

Merce Cunningham (1919 – 2009) was a prime influence on the development of postmodern dance in the 1960s and later. Trained at the Cornish School, Mills College, and the School of American Ballet, he danced with the Martha Graham Company from 1939 to 1945, creating lead roles. He began to present his own choreography in the 1940s and in 1953 founded Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham freed dance from spatial restraints devising dances that can be viewed from any angle and also released dance from traditional musical constraints by using electronic music and other compositions of his musical director, John Cage. In addition, he liberated his own choreography from structural limitations by using techniques of chance, such as throws of the dice, to determine the order in which sections of a work should occur. Eventually rejecting psychological and emotional elements present in the choreography of Graham and others, Cunningham developed his own dance technique and method which emphasised more balletic movement and flexibility of the back and torso, influenced generations of dancers and choreographers.

Jose Limon 1965

José Limón (1908 – 1972) was born Mexico but moved to Los Angeles in 1915. His powerful dancing shifted perceptions of the male dancer and his choreography continues to bring a dramatic vision of dance to audiences worldwide. Limón moved to New York City in 1928 and in 1946, after studying and performing for 10 years with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, he established his own company with Humphrey as Artistic Director. Limón’s choreographic works were quickly recognised as masterpieces and the Company itself became a landmark of American dance. His Limon technique comes from human movement, feeling and the sensations the body experiences in motion, rather than how it looks for performance. His concepts include breath and its influence on movement, the impact of weight on individual body parts and how the expression created, flexibility of the spine, body-part isolations, the dynamism between fall and recovery, rebound, weight, suspension and succession. In 1997 he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame in New York.

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006) studied at University of Chicago and was an African-American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and social activist. She examined, interpreted and dwell into the roots of black dances, rituals, and folklore in the Americas, Africa and Caribbean, and transformed them into artistic choreography. By incorporating authentic regional and anthropological dance movements, she developed a technical system that educated her students mentally as well as physically. Her technique led toward a total rhythmic immersion. Katherine Dunham is credited for developing one of the most important pedagogy for teaching dance that is still used throughout the world, called the “Matriarch of Black Dance”. Her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of the Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique. The Dunham Company toured for two decades around the globe in 57 countries.

Pearl Primus 1945

Pearl Primus (1919 – 1994) was an American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and played an important role in the presentation of African dance to American audiences. Primus was born in Trinidad and raised in New York City, where she attended Hunter College. After graduating with a degree in biology in 1940, she studied at the New School for Social Research in New York with a scholarship. She studied African and African-American material, and developed a repertory of dances emphasising the rich variety of African diasporic traditions. In 1948, she received a grant to collect material and document dances in Africa that in some cases were fading into history. Back in New York, she opened the Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance. In 1961 she became the director of the African Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, Liberia, the first organization of its kind in Africa. A buoyant and charismatic performer, Primus lectured widely and taught courses in anthropology and ethnic dance on many campuses. 

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor (1930 – 2018) was born on July 29, 1930 and grew up in and around Washington DC.  He attended Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship in the late 1940s until he discovered dance through books and then transferred to The Juilliard School. He performed the works of Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and George Balanchine. He was a soloist with Graham’s company from 1955 to 1962 while founded his own company, Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954. He had his interest in everyday gesture and carried an incredible range of motion, emotion, imagination and issues such as war, piety, spirituality, sexuality, morality and mortality. For example, by having dancers move one-by-one into the wing as they wait to use a public telephone. He also presented an evening of minimal dance, which consisted of him standing on the stage alone in street clothes and making only tiny changes in posture to a recorded voice of a telephone operator announcing the time at 10-second intervals; outraged dance critics and ignored the performance.

Alvin Ailey 1955

Alvin Ailey (1931 – 1989) was an African-American dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. He was influenced primarily by Lester Horton and later with Katherine Dunham, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. He combined elements of modern, jazz, and African dance in his work. His company has been internationally acclaimed and has brought recognition to many African-American and Asian dancers. Although the company was initially accused of amplifying and transforming the emotivity characteristic of Graham into metaphors of the American black experience and feelings, Ailey denied and continued to employ artists based solely on artistic talent and integrity, regardless of their background.

Other famous dancers include Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, Twyla Tharp, Bela Lewitzky, Jerome Robbins, Paul Horton, Daniel Nagrin, Erick Hawkins, David Winters, Eliot Feld and Jaime Rogers. Jazz/modern dance choreographers include Bob Fosse, Gus Giordano and Luigi. Other important and more recent German dancer-choreographers include Kurt Joos and his student Pina Bausch.


For many dancers, dance tell stories and make statements about the current society. The dancers who developed modern dance wanted to make a statement about previous limitations of dance and the body. Since its founding, modern dance has been redefined many times and changes in the concepts and practices of new generations of choreographers, the term modern grows more ambigous.

References & Further Reading

Image Attribution