March-April 2017 | Exploring Contemporary Dance

Mary Grace McNally guest teaches contemporary dance for Diane Kelley Dance Studio. Photo by Saskia Kivilio

Exploring Contemporary Dance: What it is—and what it can do for your students and your school

by Heather Wisner

If you want to add contemporary dance to your studio’s schedule, your first task might be to ask yourself, “What exactly is contemporary dance?” It may sound like a silly question, but ask five different studio owners and teachers and you’ll get five different answers.

“I see contemporary as a little more expressive—but a little more codified—than lyrical,” says Colleen Snyder, owner of Bethesda [Maryland] Conservatory of Dance.

“Contemporary gives the dancers a chance to dance the voice that’s inside of them: that movement, that feeling,” says Michelle Cunningham, studio director of Premiere Dance Hillsborough, in New Jersey. “There is a freedom, in a sense, in a genre of dance that isn’t as regimented as tap, ballet, or jazz.” Cunningham says that contemporary blends different genres to create a style specific to the choreographer, unlike modern, which is derived from specific techniques developed over time. “And, where modern does not use many technical tricks, contemporary allows the freedom to do so.”

“The more we can offer kids, the better. Whatever keeps them interested and inspired will keep them coming into the building.”
—Colleen Snyder

Diane Kelley, owner of Diane Kelley Dance Studio in West Boylston, Massachusetts, isn’t persuaded that contemporary is its own genre. “Other [genres] have been codified,” she says. “You teach a very specific vocabulary, whether it’s ballet or jazz or modern—like Limón or Horton. With contemporary, it’s completely up to who’s leading the class or the choreography. It’s more exploratory in nature. You draw on other forms. How you differentiate is a really difficult thing to answer.”

Kelley and her teachers believe that contemporary “is a catchall word for more up-to-date modern movement within each [genre]. So we incorporate contemporary movement into ballet and/or jazz class, thereby doing contemporary ballet, contemporary jazz, contemporary lyrical,” Kelley says.

Contemporary dance teacher Chelsea H. Smith in performance. Photo courtesy Chelsea H. Smith

Mary Grace McNally, who teaches contemporary classes for Kelley as a guest artist, agrees. “There’s no formula, no set steps,” McNally says. “Contemporary is really anything we’re making at this moment.”

Whether you believe contemporary dance is more a technical or an artistic delineation, “defining it is one of the most difficult things a teacher has to do,” says Chelsea H. Smith, who teaches at Snyder’s studio. “It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. Because it’s a new and emerging style, it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.”

Deciding what it means at your studio, however, is an important place to start.

Gauging interest

An experienced teacher at major studios throughout the mid-Atlantic region and a certified dance/movement therapist, Snyder opened her own studio last September with classes in ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop; she and three other teachers work with approximately 70 students, ages 2 to 14. In October, Snyder added a contemporary class.

“I was contacted by a mom whose 13-year-old daughter wanted to add contemporary to her ballet repertoire,” Snyder says. “Another girl joined her, and we’re about to add two more. So it started organically.”

Snyder believes that public interest in contemporary dance has been fueled largely by TV dance programs. “We get requests for contemporary. We field questions almost daily,” she says. Along with that interest, however, come certain misconceptions, especially the notion that contemporary dance is simple.

Chelsea H. Smith (at right) teaches contemporary dance class at Bethesda Conservatory of Dance in Maryland; she says contemporary is defined by “the innovation side of the movement.” Photos courtesy Chelsea H. Smith

“Students have to have previous training; they need to be taking a technique class. They can’t just come in off the streets and be a contemporary dancer,” Snyder says. “We find that [this concept is] hard for dancers to understand. They see contemporary dance on TV and think, ‘I’m going to be a contemporary dancer tomorrow.’ It’s not a reasonable expectation.”

Cunningham has also seen a media-generated uptick in interest. “It was about eight years ago that the industry starting taking a turn,” she says. “So You Think You Can Dance came out and this contemporary scene was out there for the dancers to see. It started becoming more popular, and we wanted to make sure we were offering every genre to our dancers. People were asking if we had those classes.”

Now in its fourth decade, Premiere is home to approximately 440 students, 16 teachers, and a schedule that includes ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, modern, musical theater, acro, and hip-hop. Students are divided between the competition program—which will be entering seven contemporary routines in regionals this competition season—and the performance (formerly called recreational) program. Cunningham initiated contemporary classes in the competition program and then expanded them to the performance program; the studio now offers approximately 10 contemporary classes a week for all levels, starting at age 6.

Kelley’s studio, now in its 30th year, has a dozen faculty members teaching roughly 300 students, about half of whom are under the age of 7 and 80 of whom are in the competitive track. Competition dancers take multiple ballet and pointe classes weekly; the studio also offers tap, jazz, and acro. Though Kelley and her teachers integrate contemporary movement into other classes and she occasionally brings in a guest teacher to teach a contemporary class, her customers have not requested weekly contemporary classes.

Teaching contemporary dance

Because contemporary dance has such fluid parameters, finding instructors may not be as straightforward as searching for a ballet teacher.

“My biggest goal is teaching that contemporary can’t be put in a box.” —Mary Grace McNally

“As the styles have become more evolved, or it’s become more of a spectrum, really nailing down what is contemporary depends on the choreographer,” says Smith. “I take some steps from ballet and modern and put them into a new form with a different kind of music and new movement styles and technical elements.” Contemporary, she says, is defined by “the innovation side of the movement. In terms of ballet, it’s to a more untraditional or contemporary song but it has ballet-inspired movement and shapes. Jazz obviously has its own syllabus and comes from certain places. So when it comes to contemporary, it’s like taking off all those boundaries and letting original movement come to you.”

Snyder’s studio focuses on including strong technical elements in all classes, and in her contemporary classes Smith starts with a ballet barre followed by a contemporary warm-up and movement across the floor. “I like to end every class with a combination so the students can work on really dancing and learning choreography,” Smith says.

Studio owner Michelle Cunningham (top) and teacher Eric McCotter (bottom) lead contemporary classes at New Jersey’s Premiere Dance Hillsborough, which offers contemporary instruction at all levels. Top photo by Olivia Pinciotti; bottom photo by Michelle Cunningham

McNally’s view of contemporary dance took shape when she was studying at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “I was in a program that was very new and pushing boundaries,” she says. “My director, Donna Faye Burchfield, sat us down on the first day and asked us what contemporary was. And then she said, ‘Contemporary is anything new. It’s right now. We’re being contemporary.’ ”

She brings this idea to the classes she teaches for Kelley—who doesn’t dictate her faculty’s class content. “I found recently that my biggest goal is teaching that contemporary can’t be put in a box,” McNally says. “There’s no formula, no set steps: it’s really anything we’re making at this moment. Sometimes I wonder when people ask for contemporary if they know what they’re asking for. I probably won’t give them the idea of contemporary that they had in their minds. [But] I’ve never had anyone be upset that we haven’t done specific movements or specific things.”

Improv is central to McNally’s pedagogical process. In the contemporary classes she teaches at Kelley’s studio once or twice a month, she says, “[We start with a] warm-up and then I always do improv because I feel it’s really important to learn how your body moves and to fire up the brain.” She has prepared multiple routines she can teach after that, based on how comfortable students are with improv, a skill she feels all dancers should learn.

At Premiere, Cunningham says she looks for teachers with strong ballet and modern bases and familiarity with lyrical and jazz. Like Kelley, Cunningham gives her teachers leeway to structure their classes. “We do not choose our instructors’ style of teaching. They can go in a more lyrical route or a more jazz route or whatever they feel most comfortable with, and we don’t choose music for them. [We do, however,] make sure there are certain things, technique-wise, that they are accomplishing throughout the season with their classes,” she says. “For our contemporary students, we want a clear understanding of dancing in parallel. We also want the dancer to have a firm grasp of improv.”

Cunningham has had to counter the misconception, mostly from parents, that contemporary dancers only do improv, that they’re making up their own movement and that technique is secondary. To the contrary, Cunningham says, “We concentrate a lot on body placement, body alignment, working through floor work, doing progressions across the floor. That’s all very important to our students’ technical training.”

Diane Kelley Dance Studio competition dancers perform Mary Grace McNally’s award-winning contemporary piece Reckoning Thoughts at the 2016 American Dance Awards. Photo courtesy Diane Kelley

Cunningham suggests that studio owners who want to add contemporary classes to their schedule begin by hiring a guest artist to teach classes, perhaps as a four- to six-week trial during the summer session. Classes should be open to the entire studio at different ages and levels, and owners should follow up with students afterward to gauge their interest in having classes on the regular schedule. Cunningham uses attendance goals to measure the success of a class.

“If we say we would like to have at least 10 kids in our four- to six-week class and we get 15 kids, we know that we have surpassed our goal and there was definitely a want and a need for it,” she says. “If people are not signing up for the class, we usually say, ‘OK, there’s not a want or a need for it at this time,’ and we’ll revisit it at a later date.”

Reaping the rewards

The studio owners and teachers interviewed for this story agree that adding contemporary movement—in whatever form it takes—benefits studios and students.

Cunningham says that studying contemporary dance has made her students well rounded and better able to connect steps. “They become even more comfortable dancing through their movement,” she says.

Smith believes that contemporary dance training has made her students more versatile. “They’re learning new skills and they’re molding themselves to various choreographers on a daily basis, so their ability to dance in any style just explodes,” she says. “They can go to any competition and take anybody’s class and stand out because they feel comfortable moving in 18 different kinds of ways instead of having a very structured style where they only know how to do three things.”

At American Dance Awards’ 2016 national championship, Diane Kelley Dance Studio competition dancers perform Katy Spreadbury’s contemporary piece Tread Water. Photo courtesy Diane Kelley

Even if Kelley’s studio doesn’t offer contemporary dance classes per se, she says that contemporary “is moving us toward an expression of self . . . by mixing techniques.” And while classical training remains Kelley’s focus, a contemporary piece that NcNally choreographed for Kelley’s students earned McNally America’s Choreographer of the Year title at last summer’s American Dance Awards. “As in acting, as in voice, as in music, if you’re trained classically you have the tools to go out and do anything else,” Kelley says.

And, for Snyder, contemporary dance offers both a marketing and a motivational tool. “For the studio, the more we can offer kids, the better. Whatever keeps them interested and inspired will keep them coming into the building,” Snyder says. “Right now it’s really marketable to colleges, if that’s their interest. They have the benefit of seeing movement that they recognize on shows like Dance Moms or So You Think You Can Dance; they feel like they can recognize stuff that they’re learning. They have goals and role models that they see in the world. Contemporary dance gives them an outlet for their own creativity. It can be an anything-goes philosophy; they can pull from everything they know and create a piece all their own.”

DSL managing editor Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and Portland Monthly, among other publications.