The Contemporary Conundrum

On “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7, Ashley Galvan and All-Star Mark Kanemura navigated the sensuous choreography of Travis Wall’s so-called jazz number with convincing abandon. Set to Annie Lennox’s soaring anthem “Wonderful,” the dance’s risky lifts, natural gestures and emotional honesty made the performance come alive. Nigel Lythgoe liked Wall’s routine, but thought it belonged in the contemporary category instead of jazz. True, the piece was free of any Fosse or other telltale jazz moves. If performed in a competition setting, Wall’s dance might have been called “lyrical.” The whole issue begged the question, “What exactly is contemporary dance?”

Dance style labels are slippery things, and “contemporary” gets the “Most Murky” award. If you’ve only seen it on “SYTYCD,” you probably think contemporary is synonymous with steamy duets set to pop songs, using a dance vocabulary combining ballet, jazz and modern and most often performed in bare feet. Chances are there are leaps and some eye-popping acrobatic tricks. The dancers are usually trained in ballet and jazz technique and able to lift their legs super high. The woman is generally wearing a short, empire waist dress and the man often forgets his shirt. Wall’s piece could easily be a poster dance for contemporary. Yet that’s just one way of thinking about the term, which means many different things. So what is this hybrid dance style? Dance Spirit set out to investigate “Planet Contemporary Dance.”

Identifying Contemporary Dance

It’s easier to define contemporary by what it’s not: You won’t see tap or character shoes, costumes made of grass or bells strapped to ankles. But contemporary is still a bit abstract.

After talking to a handful of ballet, modern and competition veterans, it became clear that contemporary isn’t a technique. In modern, there are specific techniques, like those created by legends Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. In ballet, there’s Vaganova, Cecchetti and Balanchine technique, to name a few. According to the dictionary, contemporary means “of a time” and could be a relationship between people or things. For example: Travis Wall is a contemporary of Mia Michaels. But when we talk about contemporary dance, we’re using the word in a different way. Its meaning changes depending on where you fall on the dance spectrum.

Contemporary on the Competition Circuit

Mandy Moore, a contemporary choreographer who’s popular on the convention scene, considers the term wide-open. “Contemporary has become the catch-all word used to define movement that doesn’t fit into traditional categories,” she says. “The style was created and defined by artists who don’t like to ‘color inside the lines.’ Contemporary seems to be this place where different styles can collide and create a new, different look and feel for both the dancer and the audience.”

At competitions and conventions, lyrical may be contemporary’s first cousin. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between the styles is the use of acrobatics in contemporary routines but not in lyrical. Both can use pop music—Sarah McLachlan, Jason Mraz, Imogen Heap and Adele are current favorites—and both usually have ballet or jazz as a base in the choreography.

Contemporary in the Ballet World

In the ballet world, “contemporary” refers to works like George Balanchine’s famous plotless ballets—known as leotard ballets—and the dances of other ballet deconstructors like William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon. These choreographers have taken traditional ballet movements and dramatized them. In their pieces, the dancers’ arms are more extreme, fourth position is wider and performers are pushed off balance instead of staying directly on top of their legs. Whether it’s a retelling of classics like The Sleeping Beauty and Afternoon of a Faun or a pure movement ballet focused on intense athleticism, it’s all considered contemporary.

Take Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, an up-and-coming Houston-based boutique ballet company with an international reputation. Though you won’t hear any pop songs at Walsh’s performances, there are plenty of steamy duets. Sometimes there are pointe shoes, sometimes not. Today there are many companies, like Walsh’s, devoted solely to presenting contemporary ballets, including Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Contemporary vs. Modern

You might think contemporary is interchangeable with modern—the words are similar—and you would be wrong. According to Walsh, contemporary is even more modern than modern. “I think of contemporary as having derived from some classical backing, but evolving into a richer, more intricate vocabulary of movement,” Walsh says. “Contemporary, for me, represents current, up-to-date ideas. Modern, to me, refers to a particular time and feels a bit dated.”

Plenty of contemporary choreographers who work in ballet and commercial dance arenas have no background in traditional forms of modern dance at all, and usually they don’t come from the college track, where they’d have taken Lester Horton or Paul Taylor classes. If you come from a competition studio, your class schedule may read only jazz, ballet, lyrical and tap. In a ballet academy, you might get an occasional dose of modern, but not on a regular basis.

That being said, some choreographers who did train in modern, like rising choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, describe their work as “contemporary,” too. Barnes, who studied Martha Graham and Cunningham technique at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, often makes hilarious dances that examine the intricacies of performance itself and look nothing like Wall’s or Walsh’s. “I used to say postmodern, but people would ask, ‘What is that?’ Postmodern can be a real conversation killer. It sounds pretentious,” says Barnes. “I bounce all over the map. I studied modern dance, but I don’t intend to continue a particular technique, nor did I dance in a modern company.” She uses the term “contemporary” more by default.

Contemporary in College

The Juilliard School in NYC promises an education in contemporary dance, but faculty member Linda Kent says the word contemporary is still a bit cloudy in her circle. “We had modern, then postmodern, but not another word for what came after that,” says Kent, who danced with Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Karen Kohn Bradley, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, finds her faculty is in constant discussion about what to call their classes. “Contemporary has a variety of meanings,” she says. “Words are defined by their use. Right now, contemporary casts a broader net.”

A Contemporary Conclusion?

Labels, misleading as they are, give us a ballpark definition. They help us talk about dance. How many times have you gone to see a supposed ballet company performance and not seen a single dance on pointe? Is it still ballet? Probably, yes. If Travis Wall decides to make an abstract dance set to Ravel’s “Bolero” with Bollywood-style moves, is it still contemporary? It could be. Maybe we just need to know that dance is an ever-evolving art form. Labels do their best to define it, and just as soon as they do, something changes. Contemporary may just be an umbrella to encompass much of what we see on stage and television today. It’s confusing for certain, but for now it’s what we have. So go with it. Labels should be as fluid as dance itself.

Bradley sums up the opacity well: “I don’t care what we call it—we don’t have a good word for it yet. How about we just call it dance?"

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Because all dancers have experienced it at some point or another (Getty Images/patat)

How Dancers Can Beat Zoom Fatigue

Now that we're more than nine months into the pandemic, there's a big chance you're feeling Zoom-ed out. Read: Totally overusing the video-conferencing app for school and dance classes—and everything else. And according to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, there's good reason for that: "Managing your environment in a virtual space is taxing on the mind, and therefore taxing on the body."

Hornthal attributes these feelings, in part, to a mind–body disconnect that happens when we use the app: Your body knows you are alone in the room, but your mind sees a group of people on screen—and managing this COVID-era reality can be, well, exhausting. But we can also feel Zoom fatigue, Hornthal says, from having to "constantly be present to the third 'person' in the room: the Zoom camera." Uh, relatable!

So if staring at a grid of fuzzy faces—or into the abyss of that cold, dark lens on your device—has you feeling less than energized, here are some ways to cope.

Take breaks from tech throughout the day

Tamia Strickland, a sophomore in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program, trains both in person (with a mask, of course!) and online but says there are unique challenges that come with the latter. For one, she says, it's hard "to stay focused and motivated when you are in your basement or living room staring at a computer screen all by yourself—and all day long." These feelings can lead to frustration: You want to stay engaged with the class, but after staring at your computer screen for so long, you start to feel unmotivated.

As a remedy, Hornthal suggests taking breaks from your tech devices when you can. "The last thing you want to do," she says, "is exit a Zoom session and then immediately jump onto your phone." Instead, take a breather from everything virtual, and give your mind—and body—time to recalibrate. "Create space to connect or reconnect with your body when you are off technology," Hornthal says. "Take a walk, practice mindful breathing, embrace nature."

Move for yourself—and on your own

Another way to overcome feelings of online-class fatigue, Hornthal says, is to find time to move on your own—away from the camera on your device. As you begin moving for yourself, try to recognize and notice your own body wisdom. As a dancer, this could simply mean taking stock of what feels good and natural to your body as you, say, indulge in an improv sesh.

Tim Roberts, a Maryland dance studio owner and former performer, says giving his students time to turn their cameras off and work through their own movement has helped keep them motivated. "Opening that space for them is so necessary­ and beneficial, and helps them appreciate the time they do have with me," he says.

If you're not feeling up to a movement break, consider cooling down the mind and body by taking some time to stretch out and take up space in the body, Hornthal says. By encouraging greater body awareness, stretching can help give you more insight into what your body needs at any given point—a physical check-in before you head back into The Land of Zoom.

Tap into your other senses

When you're on Zoom, you're constantly using your eyes—to learn choreography, to support fellow dancers, to catch physical cues from teachers—so it's important, Hornthal says, to give yourself screen breaks. As you give your eyes a rest, take time to whet your other senses: Squeeze a stress ball; smell the outside air; gulp a tasty green smoothie; listen to your favorite playlist. The key here is to take in stimuli that trigger your other senses, rather than continuing to use (or overuse) your sense of sight.

And as a golden rule for your overall Zoom-life health, always remember: "It isn't just dance that is happening online—our entire lives are virtual," Hornthal says. "That means we have to be intentional with our downtime, and turn off technology, so we can tune in to ourselves."

Because honestly, what could be better than dancing alongside your mom? (Getty Images/undrey)

How You Can Support the Beginner Dancer in Your Life

Plenty of us have been dancing since we were teeny-tiny tappers and trinas, but walking into a dance class as an older beginner can be seriously intimidating. Luckily, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's easier than ever to try out a two-step without even stepping into the studio—virtual classes seem to be everywhere we click nowadays.

Is one of your friends, siblings, parents, or grandparents interested in starting to dance, but totally unsure about where to begin? As the resident dancer in their lives, there are plenty of ways for you to encourage them. Here are just a few of the ways to support the newest dancer in your life.

Roll Out the Recommendations

The pandemic has opened up a whole new world of dance classes that you can stream right into your living room. By now, you're probably a seasoned Zoom dance pro. So start by asking your aspiring dancer what their goals are. Are they looking to just become more active? Study a specific genre of dance? Find a new creative outlet? Take that info and help them narrow down what kinds of virtual classes they might enjoy. Then, recommend some studios you know and love.

Be sure to give your friend or relative an impression of what to expect from their virtual class. Don't forget to offer Zoom-specific tips, like where to place their camera, or how to rearrange their furniture to provide enough space for class. And if they're nervous (or don't want the pressure of being on camera for their first few classes), let them know it's okay to leave their camera off until they're ready to try class with it on. After all, if Hugh Jackman can do it, so can they

Join Their Journey

Maybe you'd also like to broaden your dance horizons, or your friend is looking for an accountability partner. Try taking a beginner level class with your friend in a style you're unfamiliar with. Plenty of studios offer workshops for beginning dancers in a variety of styles, like Broadway Dance Center's Absolute Beginner Workshop seriesAbsolute Beginner Workshop series, which offers a series in every genre from ballet to street jazz.

Another option is to find a dance class video on YouTube, like Kathryn Morgan's at-home class series, and take it at the same time over a Zoom call by sharing your screen. That way, you can pause the video if you need to answer a question from your friend. (And try your best to remain calm when they ask you, for the fifth time, what "plié" means.)

Cheer Them Through Challenges

Most importantly, be there to support your friend or relative in their new dance journey. You know that there can be bumps along the road, but you also know that nothing compares to the feeling of nailing a hard combo, or accomplishing your next dance goal. The newest dancer in your life has all those milestones to look forward to along the way. Don't let them get discouraged when it's difficult —and help them celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

Photo by Anaiah Simons, courtesy Taylor Jade Edgin

How Dance Helped Me Achieve Success in My Nondance Career Path

Like most kids, by the age of 4 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up…a dancer. And sure, every kid picks a career to play along with—doctor, veterinarian, princess. But from that young age of 4, I was determined to turn my dream into a reality.

I spent my adolescent years in multiple dance companies, training to make the move to L.A. And then I got it: glimpses of my big break. I began working for and with the choreographers on my bucket list, got accepted into dance companies I'd tirelessly watch on YouTube, and even made it on that national commercial that my friends, family (and don't forget the frenemies!) got to see on repeat.

But then, suddenly, I felt a shift. Was I, the dancer who spent 18 years of blood, sweat and tears (and a crap ton of money) getting burnt out from the everyday hustle of my industry?

If I'm being honest, I always felt like the odd one out in my profession. It took me about four years of paying my dues in L.A. to realize that everything that was different about myself—and my mind—would serve as the catapult towards my new career path as a creative director.

Just Outside of Dance

While grappling with my sudden change of desire, I reflected on where it all started. I remembered being 10 years old, listening to the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album in the car, closing my eyes and visualizing a whole music video in my head. And while I thought that meant I would just be the choreographer or the dancer performing in the video, I never realized it might also mean I could be the person to bring the music video to life.

I flashed back to my various experiences on set as a dancer. I remembered how I always took interest in communicating with other departments and learning about their industries, and realized that it's OK to pursue creative endeavors beyond dance. I also paid close attention to how I was treated on set as "talent," taking all the things I learned and didn't like into deep consideration.

Growing Into the Role

Opening my mind allowed for a lot of fun opportunities, like the time I got to star as the lead in a music video that I was also hired to choreograph and direct, or when I started working with my teenage idol and mentor D-Trix, who taught me how to simultaneously choreograph and direct a piece for the camera. Combining my passions just felt right, but the coolest part about developing my knowledge as a creative director was that I got to do it in spaces I was already familiar with. Creating in the dance industry without actually dancing helped me discover that even though I'm focused on this new, creative role, I can still maintain my deep connection with dance.

I've spent the last four years continuing down the creative-direction path, developing artists, producing music videos, and marketing for friends. A favorite moment for me was working with Nya Bloom, a friend and upcoming artist who I convinced not only to create a short film for his first project, but also to hire me as a director.

After six months of brainstorming together, we pitched our ideas to an investor who loved them and granted us a budget. From there, I was hired as set designer, choreographer, stylist and director for the project, which granted me the opportunity to hire all my friends, from dancers and actors to DP and editors. We paid everyone their full rates and ran our production in succinct timing, wrapping everyone 30 to 60 minutes earlier than planned.

I was ecstatic to use all my skills from previous jobs as a dancer on set, and everything I had observed from my previous experiences, to put my skills to the test and produce a visual that turned out even better than we could've imagined.

Edgin getting comfortable in the directors' seat (Avo Guedekelian, courtesy Edgin)

Dancing to My Own Beat

I pride myself in not underpaying or overworking dancers and (subtly) brag about being the person to book you for a 12-hour day, release you ahead of schedule, and still pay you your full day rate. It's really important to me, as someone who has been in the positions I'm now hiring for, to make sure the talent is as comfortable and happy as possible.

As I've gained more experience in my role as a creative director and taking on artist development, I've realized that having a dance background made finding success in these nondancing roles so much easier. So, whether you choose to join a prestigious company as a full-time dancer or become a freelance creative director who dances whenever they feel like it, just know that dance is a tool that can help you achieve success in spaces you may have never imagined.

I'm so grateful for my now 21 years of dance experience for introducing me to my true calling in life. There was never a moment wasted, and I can dance to the beat of my own drum now.

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