How did modern dance come about?

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Advent of Modern Dance

Here is how Petra Kuppers describes the advent of modern dance:

Modern Dance was born at the beginning of the twentieth century out of the need to recreate dance, to tear it away from the formal, stifling rigor of ballet, as well as from the image of other forms of dance as light-weight, sordid entertainment. One of the first dance artists associated with the movement was Isadora Duncan, whose insistence on dance as self-expression and high art paved the way for the more sustained schools of Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and the Denishawn dance troupe. In Germany and the United States, these founders worked on movement systems which focused on the grounding of the body, natural dance, harmony, creative expression, and feeling. Their techniques continue to shape contemporary theatrical dance (Modern Dance).

Source: Kuppers, Petra. “Modern Dance.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 3. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 388. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. National Library Board Singapore. 21 Jan. 2009. http://

Susan Allene Manning writes that “Modern dance originated in Europe, but by 1930 the U.S. had become the center for dance experimentation, and it remains so today. Early modern dances were miniatures—solos of highly compressed effect . . . ” and that the development of modern dance could roughly be divided into three periods: “one beginning about 1900, one about 1930, and one after World War II”.

As we are concerned with modern dance’s origins, let us refer to what she writes on the early period:

The first three decades of modern dance—embracing the careers of the American dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and the German dancer Mary Wigman—were preceded by a period of reaction against what many dancers saw as the empty spectacle of late 19th-century ballet. Contemporary with this reaction were two developments that helped inspire a freer kind of dance movement. One was the system of natural expressive gestures developed by the French actor François Delsarte (1811–71) as an alternative to the artificial mannerisms then customary in the theater. The other was eurythmics, a system for teaching musical rhythms through body movement, created by the Swiss music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and later used as a training method by many dancers.

Seeking to give their dance more communicative power, the early modern dancers looked beyond the dominant tradition of Western theatrical dance—ballet as they knew it in the late 19th century—and drew on archaic or exotic sources for inspiration. During the same period, some ballet choreographers, such as the Russian-born Michel Fokine, also looked to similar sources, reacting against late 19th-century ballet as vehemently as the modern dancers did (“Modern Dance”).

Source: “MODERN DANCE.” (n.d.). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. EBSCO. National Library Board, Singapore. 21 Jan. 2009. http://,url,uid&db=funk&AN=MO125100&site=ehost-live.

Early Modern Dance Pioneers
Following that, let’s follow Patricia Beaman as she profiles some of the early modern dance pioneers:

Loie Fuller transformed the skirt dancing of vaudeville with her use of electric lighting, invented only some 20 years earlier. In her Fire Dance, for example, blazing orange and red lights projected on her billowing silk costume. The lights gave her the appearance of a flame, amazing audiences.

The classic beauty of ancient Greece inspired Isadora Duncan. She danced as herself, not as a fanciful creature or a fairy tale character. And she rejected the technique of ballet. Instead, she moved her body and arms in a freer way that allowed her to express her emotions. She also shocked many by dancing barefoot, dressed in a loose tunic. See the biography of Isadora Duncan.

In her solo dances, Ruth St. Denis transformed herself into women from other cultures. Through her dress, makeup, and movements she became an Indian temple dancer, a Japanese geisha, or a Spanish flamenco dancer (“Dance”).

Source: Beaman, Patricia. “Dance.” The New Book of Knowledge®. 2009. Grolier Online. 21 Jan. 2009. http://

Suggested Readings
To read more about the origins of Modern Dance, you may wish to consult in full the eDatabases highlighted above, or pick up the following books from the Dance Village, library@esplanade:

Title: The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of its Creators
Editors: Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin, and Charles H. Woodford
Call No.: 792.80922 VIS
Location: Dance Village

Title: Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the work of Loïe Fuller
Author: Ann Cooper Albright
Call No.: RART 792.8028092 ALB
For Reference Only at Arts Central, library@esplanade

Title: Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham
Author: Carolyn Brown
Call No.: 792.80280922 BRO
Location: Dance Village

Title: No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century
Authors: Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick
Call No.: 792.80904 REY
Location: Dance Village

If you intend to check the availability of any title before visiting library@esplanade, you may do so via the online catalogue at:

Be sure also, to check out our exclusive Dance-on-Demand eDatabase! For more info on this and how to access, please visit:

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