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Second wave of modern dance innovators

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Early modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, and Doris Humphrey forever changed the landscape of theatrical dance.  But the second wave of modern dance innovators also had a huge impact on the dance genre we know today as contemporary dance. They included people like Merce Cunnigham, Jose Limon, and Lester Horton.

Of course, this is only a handful of the people who influenced the development of contemporary dance.  I’ve chosen these innovators because of the training techniques they developed which have given contemporary dancers systems to train their bodies so they are physically ready for the demands of contemporary choreographers. And because their influence is still seen in contemporary dance classes today, including those at Move Through Life Dance Studio.

This article is part of a month long celebration of contemporary dance during June 2017 at Dragonfly Dance (then called Move Through Life).  All month long we shared videos and articles to help you discover this wonderful form of dance, and hopefully, to tempt you to give it a go yourself.

Merce Cunningham

Cunningham was a soloist for six years in Martha Graham’s company.  Like Graham, he is known not just for his choreographic innovations, but for the system of dance training he developed.  Graham and Cunningham techniques are two of the most well known systems of training in modern and contemporary dance.

Cunningham formed his own company, Merce Cunnigham Dance Company, and enjoyed a 70 year career, continuing to choreograph and mentor others up until his death at age 90.

His choreographic contributions included collaborations with artistic innovators in other artistic disciplines, such as music and visual art. One of his greatest collaborations was with composer John Cage, who together pioneers the radical notion that dance and music can be created independently of each other.  He also introduced the use of chance in developing choreography, for example, he would roll a dice to decide which movement would come next.  Unlike Graham, he didn’t focus on narrative dance, but developed abstract dances that were just about the dance itself.  He developed a computer program, DanceForms, to choreograph when arthritis severely limited his movement capacity.

The Cunningham Technique is an extremely rigorous training regime, designed to increase strength and flexibility.  It challenges a dancer to frequently change direction with their body and in space.  The technique has a strong focus on developing a sense of spine, and working the back with the legs in either opposition or unison.  There is also a strong sense of rhythm in the technique, which reflects Cunnigham’s early experience in tap dance.

Example of elements of a Cunningham Technique class, taught by Litsa Kiousi

José Limon

José Limon was a student and dancer in the Humphrey-Weidman Company.  He continued to have Doris Humphrey as his artistic advisor and mentor after he left the company, and invited her to be the Artistic Director of his company Limon Dance Company. This was the first time the original artistic director of a modern dance company wasn’t its founder.

Limon continued to develop the ideas of natural movement patterns and their relationship to gravity that had been pioneered by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.  His technique is built on the concepts of fall and recovery, rebound, weight, suspension, succession, and isolation.

While his way of teaching is known as the Limon Technique, it is not a codified technique, because he believed that a structured technique would limit creativity. Instead, he wanted his students to find the unique personal qualities of their own movement.  He encouraged his students to aim for simplicity and clarity in movement, avoiding unnecessary embellishments, energy or tension.  The Limon Technique is known for an emphasis on natural rhythms of fall and recovery, the interplay between weight and weightlessness in various body parts of the whole body, the way breath influences movement, flexibility in the spine, isolation of body parts, and an organic approach to movement.

Lester Horton

Lester Horton was inspired by performances he saw of the Denishawn Company, and he trained with Forrest Thornberg, who himself trained at the Denishawn School.

He formed his company, Lester Horton Dance Theater in 1946, and it operated for 14 years.  He was one of the first choreographers in America to have a racially integrated company.  While I’m including him here as an influence on contemporary dance, his work also had a strong influence on the development of jazz dance.

Horton developed his own codified dance technique, the Horton Technique, but died before he finished documenting it, so there can be considerable variation between how it is taught.  The purpose of his technique was to help dancers improve and correct physical limitations, to develop strength and flexibility, coordination and body and spatial awareness, and to prepare them for any type of dancing they wish to follow.  The technique used all the basic movement which govern actions of the body, combined with a knowledge of the origin of movement and anatomy.

His technique was based on Native American folk dances, Japanese arm gestures, Balinese and Javanese isolations for the upper body, and Afro-Caribbean elements like hip circles.  His technique features clearly defined shapes, like the forward stretch, and how the dancer can move between these shapes with energy and use of space.

Horton Technique Class with Kat Roman


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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