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– Article written by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono
For anyone who has ever practised these two dance genres or has some involvement with them, the answer may be obvious and the question may also sound pointless as contemporary dance and jazz dance are clearly completely different.
However, for the non initiated it can be tricky to distinguish, especially since these two dance genres sometimes influence each other and new forms of fusion are continuously created and performed.
Before starting to practise both contemporary and jazz dance, I for one did not have a clear idea of the differences and at first I would have not known how to explain if there were any differences.
After practising these two types of dance and being more involved in them, I can say that there are definitely differences which are both in the traditions and origins of these dance forms and in the movements, the way these two genres are embodied and they way it feels to dance them.
Below I will highlight the main differences from the kinaesthetic point of view and the historical perspective, keeping in mind that these two genres sometimes overlap and fusion can always happen.
Feelings, Movements and Embodiment
Generally speaking, gravity is used and felt differently in jazz and contemporary dance.
In contemporary dance gravity is used to the dancer’s advantage and while you dance you almost have the feeling of playing with gravity.
There is a feeling of giving in to gravity one moment and bouncing off upwards against gravity the next (personally, this is a quality of contemporary dance I really like).
The dancer uses gravity to push him/herself up again and floor work is usually a prominent feature of contemporary dance. All the levels in space are used, from the floor all the way up to wherever the body can reach and the contrast between these different levels is always prominent.
Another feature of contemporary dance with respect to gravity, is that the dancer is often on the verge of losing the centre of gravity and balance, to then swiftly regain it.
Gravity is also used a lot in contact improvisation, a technique invented in the 1970s in America by Steve Paxton, which is now part of contemporary dance tradition, whether it is improvised or choreographed.
In contact improvisation, dancers use each other’s bodies to lean and push against, creating a dynamic flow through the interactions of their bodies and the use of gravity.
In Jazz dance on the other hand, floor work is a lot less common. The centre of gravity can be uplifted at times and lower at others, giving a slinkier feeling to the movements, but you rarely give in to gravity.
Flow and isolations
In contemporary dance movements are often fluid and lyrical and flow into each other.
Of course there are exceptions and different styles and techniques of contemporary dance have different preferences.
However, generally speaking, the dance is often fluid and this may be a result of the way in which it plays with gravity, as explained above.
Jazz dance on the other hand, is often more jerky, syncopated and with high levels of energy.
Body isolations are more important and there is a greater use and amount of isolations in this style. This could be due to the influence of African dance in jazz dance, especially thanks to Katherine Dunham, an American dancer, and choreographer active in the first half of the 20th century.
Use of music
Contemporary dance is vast and diverse, but a common characteristic is that it is not dependent on music.
In a typical performance there may be a relationship with the music or not, but never dependence.
You can dance to or with music, in silence, with the sound of spoken words or poetry, but movement is always considered as an independent form of art and expression.
In jazz dance instead, there is a strict relationship with the music. The music is very important and the relationship between movement and music is direct, with the former usually depending on the latter.
Experimentation and Improvisation
Contemporary dance in general is very open to experimentation. Because of its origins and the way it has developed over the years, it is a genre which is open to experimenting.
It may have a narrative or be abstract, be politically involved or not, in any case practitioners have a lot of freedom to experiment. Jazz dance, while it is not by all means static (all dance forms experiment and change over time), it is more rooted in a certain tradition and more structured.
As for improvisation, it was used in early forms of jazz and some say it is still an important component of this dance style, but not much in the forms of jazz that I have tried in classes in the UK.
Improvisation is often used in contemporary dance and has incorporated improvisation among its techniques contact improvisation.
Even when contemporary dance is choreographed, the process of creation of choreography often involves improvising (including contact improvisation) and experimenting.
Contact and Sense of Touch
Because of the way in which it uses gravity and contact improvisation, one could argue that contemporary dance is quite tactile. On the other hand, jazz is more visual and more auditory because of its connection with the music and its relationship with theatre.
Of course all dance forms use all senses, but an interesting idea first put forward by Cynthia Cohen Bull (2003) in her article about ballet, contact improvisation and Ghanaian dance, is that some dance genres rely more on specific senses than others.
History and Sociological Perspective
Both dance styles are predominantly ‘western’ types of dance (with west we refer to mainly North America and Europe, but this concept can be argued and open to interpretations), even if they have a certain amount of hybridism.
In their current form, they are also both theatre dances, which means that they are mainly intended for performance in front of an audience, rather than being danced socially (like disco dance, for example), and interaction with the audience is generally very limited.
Below I give a brief explanation of these two dance genres’ histories and settings, which is in no way exhaustive but is done with the intent of highlighting the differences between the two.
Origins and History of Contemporary Dance
Contemporary dance is an extremely wide field, which involves many techniques, styles and traditions and which is continuously experimenting. However, we can say that it has its roots in America and in central Europe in the 1800s.
In America, the early 1800s saw the establishment of the first pioneers of modern dance, such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn.
They reacted against ballet, arguing that ballet could not be the only dance form and promoting a more expressive and free style of movement.
As the early modern dance developed, new practitioners and new theories emerged, such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey and later Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer amongst others.
All these exponents of modern and post-modern dance deserve separate articles but for now it suffices to say that, since the early pioneers of modern dance, there has been a shift towards experimentation.
The European roots of contemporary dance are in German expressionist dance (for example Kurt Jooss and Pina Bausch), eurhythmics, Laban movement theories and British choreographers such as Marie Rambert Norman Morrice, Christopher Bruce and the movement called ‘new dance’ (the British equivalent of American post-modern dance).
This branch of dance development places a great emphasis on expression in movement and making dance more accessible to the general public (at least that was the intention).
Nowadays contemporary dance performances range from the more ‘traditionalist’ and modernist ones with virtuosity in movements and traditional settings such as theatres to more experimental forms (for example Wayne McGregor in the UK), using everyday movements, unusual settings and more audience engagement.
The panorama is very vast and wide-ranging but usually, expression and concept are very important (whether it is an abstract or narrative performance, political and anti-establishment or not, the depth of concept is still essential).
Origins and Brief History of Jazz Dance
Jazz dance originates from social dances of African Americans and it was originally strictly connected to jazz music.
Hence its name and its syncopated movements and the fact that early forms of jazz dance were improvised, just as was jazz music.
However, as it was discovered by mainstream show business, jazz dance incorporated other elements in additions to its African American tradition.
Ballet technique became an important part of every jazz dancer’s training and jazz dance became associated with tap dance, musical theatre and big Broadway productions, starting from about the 1950s.
There are many different styles of jazz dance, each with its own characteristics and influences.
In general though, jazz dance has always been associated with popular culture and it has changed over time in parallel with the music and styles of popular entertainment.
Presently, many different styles coexist, as well as various degrees of fusion with other genres.
Some important figures in the history of jazz dance are Katherine Dunham, who reinforced the connection between jazz dance and its African origins; Bob Fosse highly influential figure in the development of dance in movies, and Matt Mattox, who developed his own technique based on ballet training.
The differences explained in this article may not be exhaustive and also, as more styles of these two dances develop and new forms are created that incorporate elements from both, in some cases it is hard to distinguish.
Some performances may be a fusion between contemporary and jazz, so distinctions become hard and also maybe not necessary.
If you would like to express your opinion or your personal experience, or you would like to add to the information in this article, please do not hesitate to post comments below. Alternatively, you can contact me.
- Anderson, J. (1997) The World of Modern Dance: Art Without Boundaries. London: Dance Books.
- Banes, S. (1987). Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan
- Butterworth, J. (2012) Dance Studies – The Basics. London and New York: Routledge.
- Cohen Bull, C. J. (2003) ‘Sense, Meaning, and Perception in Three Dance Cultures’, in Desmond, J.C. (ed.) Meaning in Motion. New Cultural Studies of Dance. III ed: Duke University Press, pp. 269-287.
- Wessel-Therhorn, D. r. (2000) Jazz dance training. 2nd ed. edn. Oxford: Meyer & Meyer Sport.