So what are we talking about when we say “contemporary dance”?
While the term is mainly used in major dance hubs in the U.S. and Europe, it can be used to refer to anything from hip-hop to non-western folk or tribal dance rituals. More broadly, it refers to modes of dance that began to emerge in the mid-20th century.
Encompassing myriad cultural, economic, social, and temporal nuances, it may be better to understand the term as “a functional catchall,” says Moriah Evans, a choreographer and editor in chief of Movement Research Performance Journal. It implies “you are working on the form of dance in the current moment,” she offers.
Susan Foster, choreographer and dance scholar at UCLA, warns against trying to cobble together a hard and fast definition. “You come up with these overarching umbrella terms,” she explains, “and a lot of people who have very different ideas about what dance is become invisible.”
Attempts to classify what, exactly, contemporary dance is have been almost unanimously abandoned, due in part to the inability to account for the distinct historical contexts that individual dance practices emerge from. “Not every dancer has the luxury of being ‘of its time’ in the current world,” stresses dance scholar Noémie Solomon.
In today’s study of movement, Solomon continues, dance makers are seeking solutions to questions including: “What does it mean to move, or to be moved? Who is afforded movement, and who isn’t? What bodies are forced to move and others kept still? How does movement intersect with issues of labor and visibility?” Dance is also, by nature, an
“Dance has often been hailed as an art that disappears, as if dance didn’t leave any tangible trace,” Solomon says. “Many contemporary dancers have really engaged with this question of what it is that dance produces in time.” We can see that dance evades categorical definition in the same way that it won’t be pinned down by the word “contemporary.”