This is an excerpt from Beginning Modern Dance by Miriam Giguere.
Now that you have a grasp of the way in which modern dance looks at movement, the next step is to understand how these movement efforts of space, time, weight, and flow are frequently used in modern dance. Each genre of dance uses the same instrument, the human body. How, then, is modern dance different from other types of dance? The answer to this question lies in the ways in which movements are put together and also in the aesthetic preferences of the art form. In this section you will learn about these preferences in modern dance that are true for all styles of the form. These preferences include centrally initiated movement, breath, integrated body, preference for flow over shape, and countertension.
These preferences in ways of moving are equal in importance in modern dance; one is not more central or more common than the others. If you listen to the directions that modern dance teachers give, and you pay close attention to the feedback or corrections that you and other dancers receive in class, you will likely hear these ideas mentioned frequently. Sometimes the application of one of these ways of moving is the difference between a well-executed movement and a passable one. Running through the space and holding your breath, for example, will not look or feel the same as running through the space using a deep exhalation. Let’s look at each of these preferences individually.
Centrally Initiated Movement
Movements in modern dance frequently start from the middle of the body, using the muscles of the abdomen, often coupled with an exhalation. This is what is meant by centrally initiated movement; it begins in the center of the body. You may notice that your teacher begins class with exhaling and curving in the middle or even sitting on the floor and rounding the center of the torso. There are several reasons for this.
Modern dance began in an era when women wore corsets. They couldn’t easily move their torsos or even breathe deeply in many cases. The early women who pioneered the field of modern dance removed their corsets and watched what happened as their breath moved through their upper bodies. You can try this yourself. Look in the mirror at your torso as you exaggerate your breathing, and you will see the beginnings of the movement called a contraction. This forward and backward curving of the torso is central to all forms of modern dance. Some styles contract higher in the torso and some lower, and some twist this movement to the side, but no matter how it is done, it is a central part of the vocabulary. The early modern dancers felt this movement showed a sense of freedom from the physical constraints of the corset but also from the political restrictions that it implied. The beginnings of modern dance are tied to the first wave of feminism, and the symbol of the torso moving without a corset was a way of showing the desire to shed the limitations placed on women at the time.
Another reason that so much modern dance movement begins in the center of the body may relate once again to Laban. The imaginary dimensional cross, from which Laban begins movement description, intersects at the center of the torso. It literally is the center of movement from this perspective. The early part of the 20th century, when modern dance began, was a time of scientific discovery. The popularity of a scientific, analytical way to look at movements may have been a powerful framework for the early modern dance pioneers. There is a strong possibility that Laban’s way of framing movement influenced the pioneers’ ways of creating modern dance.
The use of breath is one of the movement principles that unite all the various styles of modern dance. Breath is a central force of nature and a sustaining element of life. Many of the modern dance pioneers were interested in how the body in motion connected to the natural world. They wanted to know how the body was like the motion of the sea or the elements of the natural world, and this necessitated paying attention to the rhythms of the body through breathing. Perhaps because the early pioneers explored it so fully when they removed their corsets or when they were attempting to connect to nature, or perhaps because it is simply central to an athletic use of the body, breath is often discussed in modern dance class. Movements can come from exhaling or inhaling. Often you will be instructed to look at the pattern of your breathing as you move through a dance sequence. Do not be surprised if you are asked to make your breath audible with a loud exhalation! Paying attention to your breathing can make some sequences easier to execute but can also enhance your emotional and physical investment in the movements. As you tie your breathing to your actions, you are using more of yourself as you dance.
All dance forms rely on moving the parts of the body in harmony. What that harmony looks like, however, varies from dance form to dance form. In modern dance, using the body as a whole is often a preference. It is impossible to make statements of absolutes in the arts. Some modern dance choreographers use isolation as part of their vocabulary, but in general, a fully integrated use of the body is a principle of modern dance. This means that as you execute even the smallest movement, your entire body is involved. As you reach upward, you involve your legs in rooting downward to the earth. When you push your arms forward, you allow your chest to respond. While dancing correctly in every form of dance requires you to pay attention to your whole body, especially where alignment is concerned, the movements of modern dance encourage you to integrate your arms, legs, spine, and torso together to create the movements of the dance form rather than isolating any one part of the body. Twentieth-century modern dance choreographer JosÃ© LimÃ³n said that the body is like an orchestra. Each part of the body is one section of the group. While sometimes the violins (or let’s say the arms and chest) are taking the lead, the entire orchestra is involved in the music. Keep this in mind when you are learning new movements. If you ask yourself how the whole body is responding to the instruction and which part of your body’s "orchestra" is playing the loudest, you may find the movements easier and more fulfilling to execute.
Preference for Flow Over Shape
While shape is an important part of using the body to make art in modern dance, the form is not geared only to shape, line, and poses. In fact, the flow, or transition from one shape to another, is just as important in modern dance as the actual shapes themselves. In many movement combinations, shapes are used to travel through space, or one shape turns right into another. As you learn new movement sequences in modern dance class, ask yourself whether you are expected to make the shape of the body distinct or if the instructor intends for you to blend one shape into another. This quality of continuity can be a distinctive feature of the movements you are learning.
One principle originally described by Laban that is frequently seen in modern dance is the concept of countertension, which means giving equal energy to two opposing parts of the body. If you extend your right leg behind you and your left arm in front of you and reach each in the directions they are pointing with equal energy, you are using countertension. It is a way for you to create an energetic connection, or tension, between these parts of the body. This way of approaching the movement not only strengthens the pose you are in but also gives the body a very different look than if you were only paying attention or giving energy to one of the two body parts. In some modern techniques, this countertension is used to heighten the feeling of diagonals that cross the body; in other kinds of modern dance, it is used to find a tension or energy between the dancers’ upward motion while maintaining a strong connection to the floor.
Holding countertensions in the body doesn’t mean that you need to always be exactly on balance. In fact, the idea of falling off balance is often considered beautiful in modern dance. This is the difference between stabile and labile. Stabile is where the body is balancing; labile is where the body is off of equilibrium. The excitement of nearly losing balance and then regaining it adds vitality and dynamics to the vocabulary of modern dance movement.
These preferences for ways of moving will be combined with the basic steps and positions of modern dance in your classes. You will need to learn the basic movement vocabulary of modern dance, made up of basic positions, locomotor and nonlocomotor movements, and these preferences in order to be a successful modern dancer.
Learn more about Beginning Modern Dance.