When I’m asked what contemporary dance is, I usually sigh and take a deep breath because if you don’t already know, then it’s hard to explain. When I’m asked what modern dance is, because I try to explain contemporary with modern, I just fall down because I don’t know what else to do.

Defining types of dance is hard. Even within modern, there are so many sub-species, it turns into a mess. Then there’s the whole what’s-the-difference-between-modern-and-contemporary-I-mean-they’re-both-not-ballet debate, especially among dancers.

Perhaps what I’ve internally discovered isn’t such a big deal, but it made me think differently about a way to define contemporary dance that isn’t quite well, it’s sort of like modern and uses a lot of modern but moves away from classical technique but it still utilizes a lot of ballet and jazz and it has no official founder but you’ll know it when you see it.

As I watched PNB’s Tricolore last week, I was struck with an epiphany:

Ballet (along with other classical forms) is about finding your ever-changing center, and it utilizes your knowledge of that center to accomplish amazing things.

Contemporary dance (and parts of modern) is about discovering all the dangerous and fantastical things you can do because you are not on your center.

With ballet, we can perform clean turns and very high leaps and jumps with beats. We learn control. We learn to take risk by finding “the edge,” by pushing just to the line of where the center ends. I don’t know how else anyone could accomplish thirty-two fouettes or eleven pirouettes otherwise.

With contemporary, we learn to harness chaos in our bodies. We learn to take the danger out of moving off balance. We learn how to fall and take the spiral to its extreme, following it from vertical to horizontal.

Another thought:

Ballet is more concerned with line.

Contemporary is more concerned with the flow of energy.

That is not to say that ballet is not at all concerned with the flow of energy; anyone who has seen a good ballet dancer can attest that their lines seem to extend far beyond their limbs, that they are shaping space as well as their bodies. This is also not to say that modern/contemporary dance is unconcerned with line – otherwise we wouldn’t have much of the vocabulary that we have.

But look at this versus this. One is clearly more concerned with putting the body into a shape, and one isn’t.

These elements of dance are emphasized very differently between the two styles. The pelvis is often more emphasized during technical training for modern and contemporary dancers.

Contemporary ballet lines
Graham lines
Classical ballet lines
Horton lines

Of course, the well-rounded dancer is able to do both, to move from beautiful line to amazing spiral, back to extension. And the experienced ballet dancer utilizes spirals as they imagine inner thighs spiraling outward or their body existing on a spiral to stay in a stable arabesque balance.

So stay on your center, or stray from it; as long as you know how to find it again, you’ll be all right.