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What to expect in a contemporary dance class for adults

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Dancers curled up on the floor in a contemporary dance class for adults

Have you ever heard of ‘the curse of knowledge’?  It means that sometimes when you know a lot about something, you might not be very good at explaining it to someone who doesn’t know much about it.  This is because you use jargon or technical terms they don’t know, or you assume they know things that they don’t.

To make sure this wasn’t happening in helping you to know whether contemporary dance is something you’d like to do, I thought it would be great to get different people to share their view of what this type of dance class is.

In the first post in this series about contemporary dance, I introduced five women who do contemporary dance classes with Dragonfly Dance (then Move Through Life) – Anne, Fiona, Sally, Michelle, and Sarah. In this post, they share how they describe contemporary dance.

”A bit like ballet … but more free”

A contemporary dance class for adults - dancer doing a high release

Contemporary dance evolved out of a reaction to ballet, yet it still retains some ties to ballet.  Some things are the same, such as the use of set positions of the feet.  And some are different, such as greater freedom and expression in the torso.

“The technique in contemporary has the traditions and soul of ballet, combined with the freedom of movements learnt through yoga” explained Michelle.  “You would typically undertake common positions like first, second, and parallel. But they are intertwined with a new knowledge of how dance can be interpreted in a new way.”

“In contemporary I get to use my entire body to propel myself within the feeling of dance and appreciate what I’m doing in a completely different way.  You have more freedom of movement with more energy.  It helps you to understand your own sense of space and how your body flows with each movement.”

“It’s not as strict as ballet,” remarked Anne. “It’s more relaxed, yet I still thought it was fast-paced and gave me a good workout.”

Fiona thought that using English terms, instead of the French used in ballet made it more accessible.

“I tried a ballet class once, which I found very hard.  Maybe it was the terminology. Contemporary doesn’t use the same terminology, so it makes it easier to pick up.”

Like the others, Sarah described contemporary as a contrast to ballet.

“In contemporary dance you are not working against the natural movement of the body so much.  The fact that we don’t work in turnout all the time, for example.  We work from our natural stance, rather than creating an artificial base to be working from.  I think that you get an opportunity to really feel your weight in space, so it’s more grounding.”

”Exercises … but with creativity and expression”

contemporary dance class for adults - dancer twirling

Sometimes I think people misinterpret contemporary dance, and mix is up with creative dance or interpretive dance.  But like other dance techniques, a class consists of a series of exercises that help you develop particular skills and abilities so that when you do a choreographed routine, you have the skills to dance in that style.  I’ve heard from more than one person who has tried a contemporary class and been surprised that it had exercises, rather than just free movement.

Fiona and Sally both had that same expectation, but she recognised the value of the exercises and how they could help her to move freely.

“When I first went it felt more like exercise than dance” admitted Sally. “But that was okay, because I needed that as well at my age.  I thought you would do a whole song routine for example, but it was more on the exercise.”

“It’s exercising” agreed Fiona, “But those exercises are put into short dance routines, and you bring what you learn from the exercises to your dance.”

Sally also pointed out that while much of the class is ‘exercises’, it was still dancing.

“There is an emphasis on exercise and strengthening various parts of the body, but it’s done in an enjoyable way to music with choreography.  And it’s something you can see yourself improve at and grow in.  Last year at various points I would think I couldn’t keep going because I couldn’t remember the routines.  Either my brain is getting better or Billie is making it easier.  If you’ve not come from a dance background, it can take a while.  That motor memory is built into people who’ve had childhood experience, but I’ve seen myself get better over 18 months.”

As someone who had significant training in ballet, Sarah recognises that within the technique, there is freedom and creativity.

“Even though there is technical training in contemporary dance as well, because it is freer it allows me to tap into my creativity more. It’s not like I’m creating a piece of choreography but it is still a creative act and a chance to express myself.”

And Sally agrees, noting that the opportunity to express herself is something special.

“It’s a release, and an expression of yourself.   It’s a great type of dance to do because if you’re an introvert, which I probably am, when I’m with people, I don’t express myself much.”

“I like when the teacher shows us what to do, then says ‘do it, but put your own expression into it, do your own thing, whatever you are comfortable with doing with that move’.  It just brings your personality into the dance” noted Fiona.

”A workout for the whole body and mind”

If I haven’t done a contemporary dance class for a while, but I have been doing other dance classes, I always feel muscle soreness in my sides the next day.  It reminds me that contemporary dance works the whole body. This was something that our contemporary dancers commented on also, as well as the way it keeps you mind sharp.

“It makes me feel more aware of my position in space around me, especially the floor, noted Michelle “And you can make use of different muscles as opposed to the ones you would use in other dance areas.”

“It’s a really good whole body workout, but it’s enjoyable because it’s too music.  It’s relaxing, even though you’re working your body, it’s refreshing” agreed Sally.

“I like the way it challenges me mentally, and that I’m working my brain and my body.  It’s a holistic way to exercise and be creative.” said Sarah

”It’s not all about rolling around on the floor”

A lot of people seem to be reluctant to try contemporary dance because of the floor work.  It’s true that floor work is a key element in contemporary dance.  After all, Martha Graham’s technique, from which so much of contemporary dance has evolved, included a large element of exercises on the floor.  And modern day contemporary dance performances do feature a considerable amount of people seeming to hurl themselves at the floor.

Personally, I love the floor work in contemporary dance, but it’s not for everyone, and at Move Through Life we avoid floor work in beginner classes and classes for older adults.

“It’s not throwing yourself on the floor” confirmed Anne, who started in a beginner contemporary class this year.

“There was a big change in technique in the 90s and 200s when companies like Australian Dance Theatre had a lot more floor work, some of which borders on acrobatic,” noted Sarah, who first did contemporary dance in 1982. ” But it’s not all floorwork and I think people who are curious about dance might go and see contemporary dance and think they are on the floor all the time.  Even though I enjoy the way contemporary dance embraces the floor, it’s still about getting your weight into the floor.  I love that balancing out ballet in being able to get closer to the floor.  A good teacher reads the class initially and then knows how much is appropriate to give them in floorwork.”


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