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11 principles of contemporary dance

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

an image of a dance demonstrating one of the principles of contemporary dance - opposition

Contemporary dance is a broad term that covers many different approaches and techniques. That said, there are some common principles that are found in most contemporary dance classes. As contemporary dance evolved out of the modern dance schools of the 20th century, each subsequent school of thought embraced the principles of those that came before them, and added their own unique twist. In this blog post, you'll learn about 11 principles that apply to most contemporary dance approaches. Many of these principles are first seen in the work of the early modern dance pioneers, such as Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and José Limón.

1. Use of Breath and body awareness

Breath is the life force that fuels movement in contemporary dance. Dancers are encouraged to be mindful of their breath, using it to initiate and sustain their movements. The breath serves as a powerful tool for expressing emotions and connecting with the body's natural rhythms. As dancers breathe deeply and consciously, they can achieve a sense of fluidity and grace in their movements, enhancing the overall performance.

Contemporary dancers are also encouraged to be aware of the natural rhythms of their bodies. This awareness influences the quality and intention behind their movements.

2. Opposition

The principle of opposition involves creating dynamic tension within the body by moving in opposite directions simultaneously. This technique adds complexity and dimension to the movement, fostering a sense of balance and control. By exploring contrasting forces within their bodies, dancers can achieve a heightened sense of energy and engagement in their performances.

3. Contraction and release

Contemporary dance often incorporates the concept of contraction and release, which involves the spine and torso. During a contraction, the body draws inward and tightens, conveying tension and vulnerability. Conversely, the release allows the body to surrender and expand, conveying a sense of freedom and release. This interplay of contraction and release enables dancers to convey a wide range of emotions and dynamics in their choreography.

4. Spiral

Spiral movements are fundamental to contemporary dance, as they allow dancers to explore circular pathways through space. These flowing, curving motions not only add visual interest but also promote the engagement of the entire body. Spirals can be executed in various directions and levels, enabling dancers to create captivating and organic sequences.

5. Fall and Recovery

Fall and recovery is a dynamic principle that involves intentionally allowing the body to fall off balance and then finding stability again. This technique emulates the natural ebb and flow of life, where we encounter challenges and regain our composure. Through fall and recovery, dancers express vulnerability, resilience, and adaptability in their movements, making their performances relatable and compelling.

6. Suspension and momentum

Contemporary dance often plays with the concepts of suspension and momentum. Suspension involves creating a sense of pause or weightlessness in a movement, as if time stands still for a moment. On the other hand, momentum refers to the energy generated by one movement propelling the dancer into the next. The combination of suspension and momentum adds a dynamic quality to the choreography, creating captivating and surprising moments for the audience.

7. Use of parallel and turnout

Contemporary dance makes use of both parallel and turnout, which refers to the position of the legs and feet in relation to the hips and pelvis.

Parallel position is when the feet are aligned in a forward facing direction, with toes pointing directly ahead. The legs and hips are in line and there is no external rotation in the hips. Parallel positions are often used to create a grounded, stable, and naturalistic quality in movements. It is worth noting that most humans do not naturally stand in parallel, but have a degree of natural turnout, so parallel positions may feel unusual at first.

Turnout refers to the outward rotation of the legs from the hips, resulting in the toes pointing way from the midline of the body. The knees and hips open to the sides, allowing for a greater range of movement and creating a more visually striking appearance. In classical ballet, dancers aim to achieve their maximum turnout, but in contemporary dance, turnout is more functional than aesthetic.

Partial turnout or controlled rotation may be employed in specific contemporary dance sequences to introduce a sense of fluidity and flow. Turnout can be utilized to explore different levels and directions in the movement, expanding the spatial possibilities for the dancer. When used intentionally, turnout can create beautiful lines and shapes in the body, enhancing the visual appeal of the dance.

Contemporary dance often combines both parallel and turnout positions to create a rich and diverse movement vocabulary. Dancers may shift seamlessly between the two, integrating elements of each to suit the artistic intent of the choreography. This fusion allows for a more organic and versatile expression of movement, enabling contemporary dancers to explore a wide range of emotions and themes.

Overall, the use of parallel and turnout in contemporary dance is a balancing act between finding stability and groundedness in parallel position and exploring a broader range of movement possibilities and visual appeal through turnout. It is this fluidity and adaptability that contribute to the distinct and expressive nature of contemporary dance, making it a captivating and ever-evolving art form.

8. Versatility and eclecticism

Contemporary dance draws inspiration from various dance styles, movement techniques, and artistic disciplines. Dancers may incorporate elements from ballet, modern dance, jazz, hip-hop, circus, yoga, martial arts, eastern dance forms, physical theatre, and more, making it a versatile and eclectic form.

9. Use of space

Contemporary dance often involves the creative use of space, including the floor, vertical space, and the surrounding environment. Dancers may move through different levels and directions.

10. Challenging tradition

While contemporary dance may incorporate elements from traditional dance forms, it also challenges and pushes the boundaries of established techniques and norms, seeking innovation and fresh perspectives.

11. Collaboration and artistic exploration

Contemporary dance often involves collaboration between dancers, choreographers, musicians, and visual artists. This multidisciplinary approach fosters artistic exploration and the development of unique and groundbreaking works.


You can find out more about contemporary dance by reading our other blog posts on the topic. Even better, you can download our 76 page, illustrated ebook 'Unveiling the mysteries of contemporary dance.'

Want to join a contemporary dance class? Check out our timetable and choose a class that suits you.


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