Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | From Modern Technique to Contemporary Movement

Photo by Jonathan Sherry

by Amber Perkins 

Some say that contemporary is the new modern. I think Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham might be offended! I believe contemporary has a real connection to modern dance; it’s a free and emotional movement style that is fundamentally based in a traditional technique.

Here’s a fun and interactive exercise that demonstrates this relationship. Intermediate or advanced students turn technical fortifications from modern class into a contemporary phrase. I do this exercise frequently, and I’ve never met a student who didn’t love it.

First, I give dancers an outline for their phrase, consisting of four or five technical elements spaced out over a minute of music. I teach a Horton-based class, so I might give them a T turn, figure four, flat-back balance with a lateral, and primitive squat to the floor. Then, dancers spend the rest of the class exploring on their own how to get in and out of the elements using improvisation and their own individual style. I offer feedback, answer questions, and periodically play the music so dancers can try out their phrases.

Give dancers a week to pick out their own minute of music and create a phrase to present to the class. You can have them use the same five elements or choose their own. In class, hold a show and tell, with discussion and questions after each presentation. Students will learn a lot from watching each other’s phrases. If students picked their own elements, ask the class to identify each performer’s five elements. This is a great way for dancers to use their hard work in technique and create something of their own. When students begin to trust in their technique and allow their bodies, minds, and souls to create an emotion, it is a remarkable thing to watch.


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 BS in economics.