An evolution of choreography that came after ballet―modern dance began in the late 19th century. From ballet to contemporary and hip-hop, modern dance is enjoying a real upsurge. But for poise and power, who has the best moves?
Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn were some of the choreographers who rebelled against the two popular dance forms then―ballet and vaudeville, and this was how Modern Dance was born.
In the late 19th century, began a style of concert dance. This dance was called Modern dance, which has a very interesting history. This dance form evolved as a response to traditional ballet, and has its birthplaces in America and Germany.
It is an evolution of choreography that came after ballet. The dancers had a common sentiment for modern dance, believing that it could be enjoyed beyond the rigid ballet rules, thus giving birth to modern dance. In contrast to ballet, this dance style was created to show emotion and a more “human” side to the art.
Modern dance has several types like―Horton, Graham, Cunningham, and Limón. These styles being named after their creators were so original and unique that they actually became the “types” of modern dance. Let’s have a look at our list of top 12 most famous modern dancers of all time, and know them a little better.
Martha Graham (May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991)
They say, Graham is to modern dance what Picasso is to modern art. She is literally known as the mother of modern dance. While Graham began her career in ballet, her passion was for modern dance. She set in motion an entirely new angle to modern dance. She was the first dancer to perform at the White House.
She started her dance company in 1926―The Martha Graham Dance Company, which is the oldest dance company in America. It has helped develop famous dancer-choreographers like Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. She will be eternalized for her intensely emotional performances, unique choreography, and especially for her homegrown technique.
Specific Technique: Focusing on the center of the body, contraction and release alternation, coordination between breathing and movement, and relationship with the floor.
Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.
Popular Performance: Her performance as an Aztec woman being attacked in the dance piece, Xochitl, by the choreographer Ted Shawn was a sensation.
Lester Horton (23 January 1906 – 2 November 1953)
Horton had a short but excellent career as a modern dancer and choreographer. He chose to work out of California instead of New York City. He formed his own dance company―The Lester Horton Dance Group―in 1932 and became noted over two decades for an individual technique and theatrical style that embraced themes of social and political protest. He worked on several movie musicals too.
Specific technique: He emphasized on body awareness to allow freedom of expression. He stressed on body flexibility, and coordination.
Who are you? If you’re you, don’t try to dance like him or her. Dance like yourself.
Popular Performance: The most notable performance was the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009)
Merce Cunningham had a long and distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer. By the time he was 20, he was a professional dancer, soloing at the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1953, he formed his own dance company called Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His company had a distinctive approach reflecting Cunningham’s technique, highlighting unlimited possibilities for movement.
Specific technique: His techniques include isolated movements, his signature being the eerily calm upper torso, and these have been brought to practice by dance companies including the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
Dance is an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.
Popular Performance: In his iconoclastic prime in Antic Meet (1958), he won hearts where he is chair-strapped to his back, then swaps it for a jumper with five arms, and not a hair out of place. Effortless!
Isadora Duncan (May 27, 1877 – September 14, 1927)
Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. She danced on bare feet, wearing simple costumes and letting her hair loose, and flowing. She created the first school of modern dance. She is remembered for her death in 1927, when her scarf got caught in her automobile’s wheel and strangled her. She believed that, dance is the expression of her personal life. Her choreography included subjects like waves and wind, clouds and trees.
Specific technique: Her movements centered around jumping, running, jumping, skipping, and tossing.
If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.
Popular Performance: She is known for her dance in Beethoven, and Bach, in which she’s dressed in Greek tunics and barefoot.
Alvin Ailey (January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989)
Alvin Ailey has long been hailed as one of the most inspiring dancers and choreographers of his generation. Throughout his career, he was dedicated to popularizing modern dance in America. He believed it was extremely important that the black cultural form in this dance be accepted by other dancers, and choreographers.
Specific technique: His technique included unique footwork, popular as “ballet bottom”―combined with the movement of head, torso, and arms.
There was still no likelihood that we could make a living from dance. We were doing it because we loved it… We realized how full we felt; we were surrounded by music and dancing and joy.
Popular Performance: His most famous choreography is entitled “Revelations” (1960) and is considered a masterpiece, known for Graham technique, and usage of ethnic music.
Katherine Dunham (June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006)
Katherine Dunham remains an American icon. She was not just a great dancer and choreographer, but also a director, an author, and a social activist. She stressed on involvement of Caribbean and African dance elements. She was successful in changing jazz forever.
Specific technique: Her technique was to dance in perpetual motion.
I used to want the words “She tried” on my tombstone. Now I want “She did it.”
Popular Performance: Her performance in 1943’s Tropical Revue produced on Broadway was applauded worldwide.
Paul Taylor (23 January 1906 – 2 November 1953)
Taylor has been involved in modern dance for six decades, and is considered as the last of the great generation of American modern dance choreographers. His dance company tackles with all subjects, right from tragic to comic, following his dance style. Paul Taylor is thought to be the greatest choreographer alive. His dances projected subjects like spirituality, politics, and everyday life issues.
Specific technique: His dance moves are based on simple actions as checking one’s watch or shaking hands with a friend. His signature, i.e., ballet, overflows with rigorous technique and continual attempts to appear weightless as if defying gravity.
Most dancers I know, especially the talented and successful ones, seem to possess [my dog’s] knack for living moment to moment. You see, their idea of time is related to those infinitely short moments when they are onstage being their superselves.
Popular Performance: His most famous work, still performed today, is a funeral dance performed to the sound of New Orleans jazz music.
Mary Wigman (13 November 1886 – 18 September 1973)
Mary was one of the most talented European dancers. She focused on projecting real human emotions into her dance. Her style was expressive, and was introduced in America by one of her students, Hanya Holm. Her choreography was flooded with German expressionism.
Specific technique: Expansion and contraction, was her specialty, besides pulling and pushing.
Strong and convincing art has never arisen from theories.
Popular Performance: Her performance in “Hexentanz” (The Witch) was commendable.
Gene Kelly (23 January 1906 – 2 November 1953)
Kelly’s style was a combination of tap, ballet, and modern. He brought dance to theaters, covering entire set, changing camera angles to get the three-dimensional effect in film. His good looks complemented his energetic and athletic style of dancing.
Specific technique: His style lies in athletic jumps, fierce tapping, and ability to make props dynamic, using the mobility of cameras.
At 14 I discovered girls. At that time dancing was the only way you could put your arm around the girl. Dancing was courtship.
Popular Performance: His performance in Singin’ in the Rain is incredible.
Fred Astaire (May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987)
It is said that you can pause an Astaire dance sequence at any moment, and still get a perfect image. Fred is one of the initiators of presenting dance in movies. He worked incredibly hard, rehearsing for hours at a time, to get effortless moves. In 1933, Astaire was coupled with Ginger Rogers.
They received instant acknowledgment and love from audiences, and were featured together in series of films like The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Swing Time. Their chemistry was incredible. The popular tag line for them is, “he gave her class, and she gave him the sex appeal”. They performed ballroom routines portraying romance.
Specific technique: He introduced the term cine-dance (cinema + dance), inculcating camera movements in related to the music video.
I have no desire to prove anything by dancing. I have never used it as an outlet or a means of expressing myself. I just dance. I just put my feet in the air and move them around.
Popular Performance: His slow-motion dance in Easter Parade, and The Barkleys of Broadway dance were his highlights.
Michael Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009)
MJ was the trend-setter of music videos. He made dancing a crucial part of modern pop music. The popularly known “Jackson style” was the result of his flexibility and the grace with which he performed. He was nicknamed as “the sponge,” for his grasping abilities. Not known to many, he had tried doing tap like Astaire, and doing pirouette like Baryshnikov, but he had failed miserably. However, his own unique style gained him the glory he deserved.
Specific technique: His trademark is his “moonwalk” and the tornado spin.
To live is to be musical, starting with the blood dancing in your veins. Everything living has a rhythm. Do you feel your music?
Popular Performance: Breathtaking in “Man in the Mirror” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”.
Vaslav Nijinsky (March 12, 1889- April 9, 1950)
This list cannot be complete without Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky. Besides being a Russian ballet dancer and modern dance choreographer, Nijinsky is said to be one of the most talented dancers in history. Although he created only a handful of works, including Rite of Spring, his mark on modern choreography is unerasable. Due to a blurry footage of his talent in motion; he’s being ranked so low in the list.
Specific Technique: A perfect blend of featherweight lightness and steel-like strength.
I danced frightening things. They were frightened of me and therefore thought that I wanted to kill them. I did not want to kill anyone. I loved everyone, but no one loved me, and therefore I became nervous.
Popular Performance: His performance in L’Après midi d’un faun premiered in 1912, shocked audiences.
Whether you are looking for modern dancing pioneers, or wanting to known about popular dance steps, these modern masters of dance are inspired and inspiring. Each one has a unique take on modern dance, and all have contributed to this diverse field of artistic endeavor.