My 8 favourite things about contemporary dance
by Jo McDonald
I believe a lot of people have some idea of what is involved in ballet, jazz, or tap dance, but that a lot of people don’t really know what contemporary dance is. It’s not surprising, since the very definition of contemporary is about something that is of the current time, which implies that it is always changing. And as a technique, contemporary dance will always change and evolve, because one of the key values of contemporary dance is continual absorption and reinvention various influences, both new and old.
Despite the differences in style amongst various contemporary dance artists and educators, there are some fundamentals that I for one enjoy most about contemporary dance, and which I believe underpin all contemporary dance techniques and eras.
1. Feeling in tune with my body
Contemporary dance helps me to feel more in tune with my body and to move more mindfully. Its focus on alignment and breath helps me to be aware of where my body is in space, how I am standing, whether my muscles are tense, or relaxed, whether my breathing enhances or inhibits my movement. It has taught me how to move in the most economical manner, using weight and momentum to create movement with less effort.
Try this exercise.
Stand so that your feet are in parallel. This means they are pointing forward and parallel to each other. Check that your feet are about hip distance apart. Engage your abdominal muscles (stomach) and notice how it slightly tilts your pelvis under. Relax your shoulders and slightly lift your chin. Take a deep breath in, then exhale. Repeat this a few times with your eyes closed, being aware of how you are standing, where you may be holding tension, and feeling your feet melt into the floor.
2. Connection with the floor
Part of the process of being body aware is feeling a connection with the floor. You are aware of just how much of your feet, while standing, or perhaps back and head when lying down, is in contact with the floor. The aim is to maintain maximum connection to the floor in all movements by relaxing into the floor. This is true even when jumping, because you want to sink and connect with the floor before you jump. Instead of thinking about jumping off the floor, think of pushing the floor away, and when you land, softly meld back into the floor and sink into a deep demi plie (or knee bend).
If going down to the floor to sit or lie down, you move into the floor through a cascade of body parts that unstack sequentially. If you roll on the floor, your head stays connected to the floor for as long as possible so you don’t strain in your neck and the movement is smooth.
3. Flow of movement
In a contemporary dance class, I enjoy the way the movement flows through my body, for example, from back to shoulder, then elbow to wrist, hand and fingertips.
Let’s take one of the simplest movements, the spinal roll, which is often performed as one of the first exercises in class. You start standing straight, which your feet in parallel. Let your head relax forward. The weight of your head releases the shoulders, followed by the middle, then lower back
It’s as if the vertebrae in your spine are building blocks which unstack one at a time, or sand cascading down a sand hill. During the movement, your arms hand forward, and as you get to the lower back, your knees bend. You reverse these movements to return to an upright position, starting by tilting the pelvis under, then re-stack the vertebrae one at a time, until your shoulders and head are once again upright. The head is the last part of your body to return to upright.
The principle of how the movement flows down the spine is mirrored over and over in contemporary dance. One part of the body starts the movement, and the rest of the body follows, making the dancer move like liquid, like water flowing from one place to the next.
4. Feeling the rhythm
Many styles of dance take their rhythm from music. Contemporary dance does this too, sometimes, but it can also take the rhythm from your breath. The style of contemporary dance I’ve trained in has roots in yoga, particularly Vinyasa yoga, in which movement is synchronised to your breath.
Whether the source of the dance rhythm comes from music or breath, I love the feeling of getting the phrasing right. When learning a new sequence, I like to think of it being like sketching a painting. You don’t start with the detail, you start with the outline, then fill in the detail. The same thing happens with contemporary dance. I trace the outline of the sequence, getting my weight in the right place at the right time. Once I have that, I fill in the details
5. Feeling agile, strong and flexible
I bet when you think of a ballet dancer, you picture that slim lithe physique that very few people are born with. Ballet dancers are incredibly strong and flexible, don’t get me wrong, but what I love about contemporary dance is that it fits my body type. And any body type really. What I’m trying to say is you don’t need to fit into a narrow definition of a dancer’s body. No matter what you start with, contemporary dance can help you become agile, strong and flexible.
Your legs will become strong and flexible from deep lunges and from bending your legs to leap. Your upper body will be strengthened by taking your weight on your arms, for example in in plank position or downward dog, or even handstands. Your torso will become supple and strong from arching, twisting and bending. Learning how to move ‘through your feet’ and to keep your centre of gravity low will help you be more agile, shifting weight rapidly as you dodge, leap, roll, or pivot.
6. It’s soothing and centreing
I’ve mentioned how contemporary dance has a strong focus on breath. Deep breathing inhibits the stress producing hormones and triggers a relaxation response. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which decreases blood pressure and heart rate.
Contemporary dance is also mindful. You are conscious of your body, and aware of which parts of your body are working and which are relaxed, and how you are connected to the floor. It means you are focused on the present moment, and all the worries of your day drop away. Practicing this over time can have a tangible effect on your physical and mental health, and it’s also enjoyable and pleasant while you are doing it.
7. Moving with efficiency
Contemporary dance has taught me to move without exerting any unnecessary energy. I don’t mean that I don’t work hard. It’s just that the energy invested results in a much bigger payoff than if I hadn’t learnt to move efficiently. It’s all about working with gravity and momentum.
Its’ about using the momentum of your movement to get you back up off the floor. Using the weight of your hands and centrifugal force to increase the rotation in your spine as you twist from side to side. It’s about keeping the body aligned, and letting the limbs move easily in their sockets. It’s about using your imagination, for example, to imagine pushing the floor away when you rise or leap, and to imagine yourself melting into the floor as you land.
It’s about being aware which muscle is contracting, and which is elongating to achieve the desired movement. It’s about placing your weight in the right place so can balance without needing to clench your muscles. Or using your arms, body and head to counterbalance.
I could go on and on with the myriad tools the contemporary dancer uses to achieve movement of breathtaking beauty and spectacle, but I hope these few examples give you the idea
8. Sense of play
One of my absolute favourite things about contemporary dance is that it has a wonderful sense of play. Common movements including running, skipping, jumping, and even rolling on the floor. When I refer to running, I don’t mean the elegant flurry of steps a ballet dancer take as they appear to float across the floor in a pas de bourree couru. A contemporary dancer gets to charge across the floor like a football player, to dodge like a tennis player, and to skip and leap like a child. You might get to run across the floor and then slide onto your knees, like a kid pretending to be a rockstar. You get to fly through the air in a leap, an air turn, or a fruit bat (a jump where you are momentarily horizontal to the floor with your arms and legs out to the side like you are a bat gliding on the breeze).
Some of these movements may sound a bit challenging if you haven’t done any dance before and have limited range of movement. You might feel afraid to run and jump and leap. But that’s what is so wonderful about contemporary dance. It helps you develop the agility and mindset to recover some of that lost energy and enthusiasm of youth.
Move Through Life Dance Studio offers dance classes to adults of all ages in ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap, dance conditioning/stretch, and mature dance. We pride ourselves on offering you a place to indulge your love of dance, whether you’re a complete beginner, had a long break from dance, or danced all your life. Our classes have a broad mix of ages, and our philosophy is that you are never too old to dance, it is never too late to start, and you can dance forever!
If you have any questions, get in touch with Jo on 0402 070 021 or email email@example.com
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