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Modern Dance Pioneers – the origins of today’s contemporary dance techniques

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Contemporary dance is an umbrella term that covers a range of different techniques and styles.  Examples include ‘release technique’, ‘Graham technique’, ‘Cunningham technique’, ‘Limon technique’, ‘Horton technique’, and more.  While these techniques have some differences, they share a common ancestry


To understand ‘contemporary dance’, it’s helpful to know where it came from.  Originally starting as a reaction against the strict rules and regulations of ballet, contemporary dance began in the late 19th century with artists like Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, and later Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.  At the time, these emerging choreographers and the dances they created were known as ‘modern dance’.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan is one of the most famous of the early modern choreographers, and is often referred to as the mother of modern dance.  Her contribution was to throw off the shackles of strict ballet technique and clothing, and to free up the dancer to be more expressive and natural.  She danced barefoot and in tunics inspired by the ancient Greeks.  She also preferred to use mood music, rather than the structured classical movement used in ballet. She didn’t have a defined technique that has gone on to influence subsequent generations of dancers.  Instead, her contribution was to free dancers up from the rigours of ballet with her free-flowing movements, bare feet and loose clothing, and move away from structured, classical musical accompaniment.

Isadora Duncan Dancers

Ruth St Denis, Ted Shawn, and Denishawn

Ruth St Denis was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan’s.  She believed that dance was a spiritual endeavour, and that it was how the body and soul communicated.  She introduced eastern ideas to modern dance, and was particularly interested in Japanese, Indian and Egyptian cultures. Her choreographic innovations includes ‘music visualisation’, where movement was inspired by the timbre, dynamic and structural shapes of music, and rhythm.  Like Duncan, she wasn’t concerned with technique for its own sake, but was interested in exploring non-balletic movements.

One of her greatest contributions was to found the Denishawn School and Company in 1915 with her husband Ted Shawn. Some of their most notable pupils were Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, to name just two. St Denis was known for her passion and charisma, whereas her husband, Ted Shawn, was known for his technical rigour. Shawn continued his choreographic and teaching career after the demise of the Denishawn School, and created the first dance company composed of men only in modern dance history. One of his greatest contributions was to challenge the stereotype of the effeminate male dancer and to create an image of a masculine and athletic dancer. Another of his contributions to modern dance was the establishment of choreographic centre, Jacob’s Pillow, which is still a world renowned dance school and host of an international dance festival that continues to this day.

Ruth St Denis East Indian Nautch Dance (August 1944)

Kinetic Molpai (1935) by Ted Shawn.mkv

Martha Graham

One of Denishawn’s students, Martha Graham, is one of the most well-known of the modern dance pioneers. She developed her own dance technique, known as Graham Technique, which is credited with re-shaping American dance and is still taught across the globe.  It is regarded as the first codified modern dance technique. Graham technique is based on the principle of ‘contraction and release’, which was based on the breathing cycle.  Other hallmarks of Graham Technique include the spiralling of the torso around the axis of the spine, the origin of movement from the core, rather than the extremities, distinctive floor work, and dramatic and expressive qualities.

Graham created a significant body of work, and established the Martha Graham Dance Company, which continues to this day.  Her company was founded in 1926, making it the oldest dance company in America.  She is one of the most significant of the modern dance pioneers because of the number of dancers, choreographers and teachers that she trained who continued her legacy, and continue to do so today.

Martha Graham in 'Lamentation'

Doris Humphrey

Doris Humphrey also developed an original dance technique which has become a hallmark of contemporary dance. Her main physical principle was the concept of ‘fall and recovery’, developed by observing the relationship between gravity and the human body.  She famously said that ‘Movement is situated on a tended arc between two deaths’, which are the vertical balance and horizontal balance.

She was the first in modern dance history to choose imbalance as the base for her movement, and she taught her dancers to understand concepts like weight, rebound, suspension, the importance of breath, and the notion that movements fall into three divisions – opposition, succession, and unison.  She codified her system in the book The Art of Making Dances (1958). As a choreographer, she introduced the notion of the dancing group as the main choreographic entity and not just as a mass of bodies acting as a counterpoint to the soloist.

Two Ecstatic Themes. Doris Humphrey 1931


It could be said that these five innovators form the foundations of today’s contemporary dance.  From Isdaora Duncan’s rejection of the rigours of ballet, and Ruth St Denis’ exploration of the spiritual side of dance, to Ted Shawn’s masculine technique, and Martha Graham’s and Doris Humphrey’s codified dance techniques, all other contemporary dance techniques and choreographers have grown.  They may have themselves been a rejection of the modern dance techniques, just as modern dance began as a rejection of classical ballet, but they all share the same heritage.


Dragonfly Dance offers dance classes to adults of all ages in ballet, contemporary, jazz, and tap. We pride ourselves on offering you a place to indulge your love of dance, whether you’re a complete beginner, had a long break from dance, or danced all your life.  Our classes have a broad mix of ages, and our philosophy is that you are never too old to dance, it is never too late to start, and you can dance forever!

If you have any questions, give us a call on 08 7073 2069


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