Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Can Your Students Tell Modern From Contemporary?

Photo by Jonathan Sherry

by Amber Perkins

Can your dancers tell modern from contemporary? Thanks to its rising popularity, contemporary dance is often merged into modern classes and competition categories. But your students should understand that modern dance is its own genre, with an established history, specific curriculums, and exact elements (for example Horton technique’s Ts, laterals, and overcurve and undercurve swings).

Contemporary dance, on the other hand, is still growing and open to interpretation. To me, contemporary is a mixture of genres infused with the passion and personality of the choreographer and the dancers. So walk into your classroom ready to explain the difference, and make sure your teaching and, ideally, your studio schedule don’t lump modern and contemporary together.

I find that my students really absorb the difference between modern and contemporary dance when I appeal to a range of learning modalities; for example, by showing videos of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater followed by clips from So You Think You Can Dance. From day one in modern classes, you should incorporate videos and books on the history of the dance form. Knowing about modern dance’s iconic and influential dancers and choreographers will inspire your students and give them a strong desire to study the techniques created by pioneers such as Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Merce Cunningham, and Lester Horton.

The relationship between modern and contemporary is comparable to the relationship between ballet and lyrical. For many studio dancers, ballet provides structure and technical mastery, while lyrical adds the self-expression/creativity component that keeps them engaged. Similarly, the structure of modern technique combined with the flexibility and creativity of contemporary is a mix that I find students become passionate about. Teaching your students the importance of both genres will prepare them for the amazing opportunities that await them in the future.


A native of Norwich, New York, Amber Perkins owns Perkins School of the Arts and directs Phoenix Project Dance. Her choreography has earned numerous awards. She has a BFA in dance and a BS in economics.