Common Ground | 5 Modern Techniques for the 21st Century

Dunham, Limón, Horton, Graham, and Cunningham demystified

By Lisa Traiger

Technique, as any good teacher will tell you, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the 20th century, when modern dance was born, it seemed nearly every choreographer wanted to distinguish herself with a specific style and technique. Numerous camps developed as dancers, students and professionals, aligned themselves in balkanized fashion with a specific choreographer or technique. You could tell a Graham dancer by the way she held her chin and wound her hair in a high, full bun. A Dunham dancer? The walk, like coursing through a sandy beach, gave it away. But today, choreographers and artistic directors demand versatility, not allegiance. The ability to remain flexible enough to tackle any number of stylistic or technical demands is what divides good dancers from great ones. The techniques below may be built on differing foundations but the end result remains constant: well-trained and adaptable dancers.

Dunham Technique
Dunham technique is more than a credo of movement education; it’s a way of life. Dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham integrated modern dance, practically and metaphorically. While others before her (and certainly since) have used dancers of color in their companies, it was Dunham, through her self-styled movement practice, who brought together African and Caribbean ritual and social dance and Western concert dance into what has become her signature technique. This fusion of polyrhythms and steps draws from ancient ceremonial dances and European-style dance forms.

The influence of Horton technique is prominent in works like Alvin Ailey’s Revelations—like this coccyx balance done by Ailey dancer Amos J. Machanic Jr. in “I Wanna Be Ready.” (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

An anthropology student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Dunham traveled to Haiti and Africa to study. There she cemented cultural bonds that have infused her challenging, high-energy technique and left a potent legacy to 20th-century modern dance.

The Dunham technique requires a flexible torso and spine, an articulated pelvis, and the ability to isolate and control the limbs simultaneously in order to master the polyrhythmic movements. The technique provides dancers with the building blocks to create strong bodies.

A typical Dunham class begins facing the barre in parallel. There dancers acquire the sense of feeling centered while also stretching their muscles, warming up the back, and activating the pelvis and quadriceps with a series of body rolls of the spine, flat-back reaches and forward roll-downs, grand pliés, and hinges to the floor.

Away from the barre, the students work on a series of contraction exercises (typically danced to live percussion accompaniment) that requires them to isolate the pelvis; gluteus muscles; and lower, middle, and upper parts of the back and then combine these isolations into full-body rolls of various tempos. Next come progressions across the floor, beginning with the smooth and direct Dunham Walk, which demands that students feel a continuous flow of energy through space as weight shifts across the entire foot with torso held high and chin lifted. Then come traveling isolations requiring students to move the head, shoulders, chest, and hips independently as they move across the floor.

Arms in a Dunham class are typically held in second position, parallel to the floor, with palms facing the floor and elbows lifted. Often culturally specific dances complete a class: Yanvalou, performed in 3/4 or 6/8 time, is a worship-based dance that features an undulating torso, arms, and hips; Zepaules, a Voudoun dance, requires articulate isolations, including percussive shoulders pushing downward that are mirrored by feet in the same rapid tempo, while knees remain slightly bent. Dunham dancers carry within their bodies the roots of some of the world’s most ancient cultures; yet this dynamic, multifaceted technique enables them to conquer a variety of styles.

Limón Technique
Limón dancers frequently swoop in breathtaking eddies of swings, suspensions, and rebounds. The technique Limón devised is based on fall and recovery, the fundamental building blocks of movement articulated by modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey. A kinesthetically appealing style to watch (though never completely codified), it is disseminated both at the Limón School in New York, which offers a nine-month professional studies program, and by teachers around the country who have studied at the school or danced with the company.

A Mexican native, José Limón moved to the United States as a child, but dance didn’t capture his imagination until he was a young man studying painting in New York. Limón studied with Humphrey, who became the first artistic director of his company in 1946. The Limón technique allows students to explore and experience their own momentum and develop into refined, articulate dancers. In class students pay conscientious attention to their breath and how it affects movement and prepares them to move. Without specific codified exercises, Limón teachers concentrate on alignment and core strength throughout class, which often begins with bends, torso and arm swings, and head rolls to warm up the body.

The class proceeds with pliés, brushes, extensions, and torso and arm gestures. Larger, full-bodied exercises include side bends, arches, and off-center tilts and lunges, which lead into traveling across the floor, often focusing on under curves (a locomotor step where the pelvis traces a U-shape, not unlike a chassé) and flowing, breath-based combinations. But the technique is not solely nor merely about breath and flow. Dynamic contrasts and in-depth rhythmic awareness and musicality are also emphasized. By the time the class reaches the extended movement phrases, the dancer is completely active: covering space, jumping, falling into the floor, and rebounding.

Limón-trained dancers gain an innate understanding of the body’s weight and the effect of gravity on movement, which allows for a fulsome, three-dimensional attack. They also develop an expressive torso, suitable for many of the choreographer’s dramatic works. An organic sense of wholeness, along with an acute understanding of breath, and give and take—“counter-energies,” Limón called them—pervades the style, but dancers are continually encouraged to find individual means to express themselves.

Horton Technique
Horton dancers exhibit athletic prowess and grace that belie the expressive nature of the form. Indiana-born Lester Horton studied Native American and world dances before settling in California and developing America’s first permanent dance theater in 1946 in West Hollywood. The technique he ultimately created homed in on the body’s anatomy, strengthening the dancers to enable them to perform proficiently in any style.

A typical Horton class focuses on some or all of 17 “fortification studies,” codified exercises that Horton devised to tackle different physical concepts, like lateral or sideways bends, descent and ascent for going into and rising up from the floor, or leg swing releases for ease of movement. The warm-up moves quickly through a series of exercises that includes flat backs, squats, descent and ascent, lateral stretches, leg swings, and deep lunges. Dancers must master the classic Horton shapes incorporated into the warm-up, including the T-position, which is as it sounds, but often bent laterally, performed on one leg, or twisted; the stag position; the cross lunge; and, on the floor, the coccyx balance (perching on the tailbone). Horton technique stretches and strengthens dancers, enabling them to build a solid core and abs of steel. Once they progress to phrases across the floor, the technique favors turns and single-foot arch springs, or jumps from one foot.

Though Horton died young at 47 in 1953, his technique survives him through the dedicated work of some of his early dancers, among them the late Alvin Ailey, whose New York school continues to instruct students in Horton principles. Horton’s legacy can be glimpsed in moments of some of Ailey’s best-known works. In Revelations, Ailey’s paean to the faith and fortitude of African Americans, the coccyx study figures prominently in the male solo “I Wanna Be Ready,” when a dancer balances on his tailbone, twisting and pulling his torso from side to side.

For some dancers the aggressive, fast-moving warm-up, which focuses on large muscles like quadriceps and abdominals early in the class, can be extremely challenging. Yet, aside from stamina-fortifying exercises, which may make even the strongest dancers’ muscles tremble, Horton always demanded expressive approaches to movement throughout class. Dynamic and dramatic, the technique can help build sensitive and powerful dancers with long, lean lines and rock-solid torsos.

Graham Technique
Among modern dance’s founding mothers, Martha Graham’s impact has been formidable. Dancers trained in her technique dance like gods: The women, in Graham’s own image, are awesome, majestic, fierce, yet sensual; and the men muscular, dependable, indestructible, yet sensitive. Her company, created in 1926, remains America’s oldest continuously active dance troupe. Graham dancers have always exhibited incredible strength and passion, along with clarity of shape and directness of attack that comes from immersion in exercises codified and disseminated over more than half a century.

The Graham contraction, central to her technique, carries with it a myriad of resonances: a sob of pain, a gasp of joy, sexual stirrings.

As Balanchine did for ballet, Graham did for modern: propagating her technique around the country as generations of her dancers retired from the stage to teach at universities and found dance studios. Although she didn’t invent the contraction, she brought the forceful exhale that curves the pelvis under and hollows the chest into common use. The Graham contraction, central to her technique, carries with it a myriad of resonances: a sob of pain, a gasp of joy, sexual stirrings. The contraction of the pelvis, depending on the decade the teacher studied at the Graham studio, might also resonate in the limbs with a bent elbow, flexed foot, or even cupped hands, resembling the hollowed midsection.

A typical Graham class begins on the floor with a series of bounces forward in a sitting position. Seated contractions and spirals concentrating on breathing follow, and dancers should be aware, even in the deepest contraction, of a feeling of lift as the head drops backward, opening the throat. Floor work continues in a seated fourth position with the back leg’s inner thigh on the floor, the front knee bent at 90 degrees and slightly elevated, and the ball of the front foot “on the walk” (touching the floor). The class progresses to falls, first from a seated position and eventually from standing, frequently initiated by the pelvic contraction, then hinging backward. Standing center work includes pliés, brushes, and knee vibrations, which are like rond de jambes but allow the knee to turn in and cross the supporting leg before swinging out again.

Standing contractions evolve into spirals, turns, and falls to the floor on 16 counts, then 8, 4, and 2. Barre work might include extensive stretching and rising to demi-pointe. Moving across the floor begins with simple walks and variations, including quickly counted triplets—down, up, up—embellished with turns and arms. Straight-legged prances that work through the entire foot and stag leaps are other signature Graham steps.

Graham-trained dancers acquire a rich range of movement qualities, from elegant lyricism to aggressive, percussive attack. While they have indomitable midsections, they also defy gravity in springing into leaps or holding steady in off-kilter balances and ever-so-slow falls to the floor.

Cunningham Technique
Cunningham technique requires clarity of body and mind. This iconoclast may have seeded postmodern dance with his once-radical ideas about using chance and natural movement to create and enhance his choreography, yet a Cunningham class still appears nearly balletic to the untrained eye, at least from the waist down. A one-time ballet student who first studied with a vaudeville hoofer, Cunningham, 89 as of April 2008, demands flawless technique from his dancers: rigorous, quicksilver footwork (what he has called “frisky feet”); challenging balances, often with the body curved or tilted; a slow center-floor combination; and great, bursting leap combinations at the end of class.            

What happens above the waist, particularly to the spine, is of utmost importance to becoming a proficient Cunningham dancer. The class begins in the center, with ballet barre-like combinations that incorporate the upper body and torso as well as arms and legs. The warm-up starts with a sequence of exercises for the spine, learning and practicing how to articulate the upper spine from the lower spine and distinguishing curves to the front, diagonal corners, sides, and back. The pelvis may also engage, but not in an aggressive, breath-sapping contraction reminiscent of Graham; instead a full-bodied curve involves the entire spine from tailbone to top of neck. In brain-teaser–like fashion, patterned arm movements overlay the feet and torso, giving both body and mind a complete workout.

Traditional Cunningham arms are held out from the shoulders in a slightly straighter position than a sloping ballet curve. The technique also works on directional changes and focus. Dancers must know where their bodies are in space and make sudden changes of direction crisply.

With his longtime musical collaborator and partner, the late John Cage, Cunningham came up with the idea that chance could expand artistic possibilities. He and Cage worked independently, so typically dancers never heard a score until opening night. While everything in a Cunningham class is counted out musically, the accompaniment might not support the dancers’ movements. Advanced dancers develop a sophisticated internal clock that enables them to perform in unison without music. Cunningham prefers to rehearse his dancers in silence, with a stopwatch in hand.

Well-trained Cunningham dancers are easy to spot for their articulation, ability to tackle rigorous and complex movement combinations, and their clean, unaffected technique.

Where to Study

For all techniques, check college and university dance departments for classes and workshops near you.

The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance offers open classes and professional, intensive, and independent programs at 316 E. 63rd St., New York, NY; 212-521-3621;

The Limón Institute (212-777-3353; offers workshops, professional studies programs, and a summer intensive at Peridance, 890 Broadway, Sixth Floor, New York, NY; 212-505-0886;

Open Horton technique classes are offered through The Ailey Extension at the Joan Weill Center for Dance, 405 W. 55th St., New York, NY; 212-405-9000;

Weekly classes in Dunham technique are offered in the Children’s Workshop Studio adjacent to the Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum, East St. Louis, IL. The 24th Annual Dunham Technique Seminar will be held July 26–August 3, 2008 (tentative); check for updates. Open Dunham technique classes are also offered through The Ailey Extension at the Joan Weill Center for Dance, 405 W. 55th St., New York, NY; 212-405-9000;

The Merce Cunningham Studio offers open classes at 55 Bethune St., New York, NY;