The Rebellious Streak: Dancing to Different Rules

How four rebels changed modern dance


Daring to be Different

Think about ballet. Are you picturing pink satin toe shoes? How about slim ballerinas with their hair in a tight bun? And don’t forget the tutu—that ruffled skirt that sticks out at the waist.

Now imagine modern dance. More difficult to come up with an image, isn’t it? That’s because modern dance isn’t only one kind of dance. It is a catch-all term for concert dancing that isn’t ballet or popular entertainment. In fact, “modern dance” has been defined many different ways since it began in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Early modern dancers didn’t know they were starting something new. They just wanted something different. They wanted to express themselves through movement, but ballet was too old and too stiff—and there were too many rules. The early modern dancers didn’t like rules. They were rebels. They were freethinkers, they were American, and most of them were women.

Meet four early dance pioneers—these rebels with a cause—and learn how each changed modern dance in their own way.


Freedom of Figure and Form
Loie Fuller (1862–1928)

Loie Fuller was one of the first American modern dancers. Interestingly enough, she had virtually no dance experience when she started performing. At an acting audition, Fuller was asked if she could dance and answered that she could. As Fuller confessed later, “when you are starving, you sometimes forget to be strictly truthful.”

Fuller quickly grabbed some cloth she found in a trunk backstage, and draped it around herself, pinning it in place. She told the manager she required dim lights, and then performed by twisting and swaying her arms, extending the cloth. She won applause and a job, and began performing for the public.

She called her dance The Serpentine, and it was a sensation. No one had seen anything like it, and soon she had many imitators. Fuller enhanced her costume. She twirled in a full-skirted gown with long sleeves, which could be extended and manipulated by using sticks.

She pushed the limits of the technology of her time, experimenting with the effects of light on her swirling movements. Changing colors brought out the shapes created by her whirling and spinning costume. It was like looking at a living kaleidoscope, where colors and geometric patterns impressed the eyes. When performing her Fire Dance, she stood on a glass panel lit up in red from underneath. As she twisted and turned, she looked like she was being burned alive. She was called “a nightmare in red clay,” a “butterfly…an orchid,” a “living rose with…flying leaves.”

Loie Fuller’s technique was different and exciting. She used movements that had not been seen in dance before. She performed solo and in bare feet without “fleshings” or tights. She was also against wearing a corset—a restricting garment worn under the clothing around the ribs and chest. Her performances in the United States and Europe influenced other dancers who came after her.


Ballet Traditions

Ballet evolved from dancing that was done in the royal courts of Europe way back in the 15th century. Over time, a very specific type of dancing emerged which had its own style and vocabulary in French. There are five basic standing positions for the feet that involve rotating the legs outward from the hip. Ballet dancers display an open chest and wide placement of the arms. Women dance in pointe shoes, which allow them to go up on their toes.

To learn more about ballet and pointe shoes, go to: Gear: Pointe Shoes.

No More Tutus and Toe Shoes
Isadora Duncan (1878–1927)

Isadora Duncan saw Loie Fuller perform and was inspired by her. Like Fuller, Duncan was interested in movement that was more natural to the human body. Ballet had confining codes, costumes, and movement—and Duncan didn’t like restrictions.

Isadora Duncan was a woman ahead of her time. She felt a woman should be free to make her own choices about being married and having children, (this was even before women had the right to vote). In the late 1800s, when Duncan began to dance, women were wearing modest full-body bathing suits. Yet Duncan chose to perform on stage barefoot in a loose tunic that showed her arms and legs. It was considered scandalous by most people.

Duncan rejected everything about ballet. She felt the technique of turning out the legs was unnatural, along with arms and legs in forced positions. Duncan thought the human body was beautiful, and she wanted to show that beauty to others. She believed movement should come from the body’s center—the solar plexus—and that separate body parts should relate to one another and move as a whole. Instead of ballet’s formal positions, Duncan chose poses that were natural to the body. She even copied positions of athletes on classical Greek vases she saw at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Isadora Duncan dancing on the beach

Duncan’s dances had simple movements—running, skipping, reaching, or pointing. Often she was inspired by nature, as when she rippled her fingers after watching palm leaves waving in the wind. She performed outside, on bare stages, and even in ancient Greek amphitheatres. Music also stirred her to move. She let the flow and rhythm of the music influence her performance. For Duncan, dance was the body expressing pure emotion.

The problem was that Duncan’s personal style, although very powerful to watch, was very hard to teach. She started a school and tried to train her students to feel the music and perform as she did, but she had no technique with which to train them. She could not transfer her method to them, but her attitudes about dance—her use of great (often classical) music, bare feet, flowing costumes, and emotional content—were passed on.


Movement Can Have Meaning
Martha Graham (1894–1991)

Soon other dancers followed the footsteps of Fuller and Duncan. None of them was more influential than Martha Graham. Her unique vision changed the way people thought about and performed modern dance.

For Graham, ballet was too artificial, too arrogant, and way too un-American. And she found the dance style of her teacher, Ruth St. Denis, too empty. While St. Denis was a gifted performer, Graham felt that her choreography lacked depth. It was dance as entertainment with exotic images from other cultures thrown in. Graham set out to elevate modern dance to a serious art form.

Graham, like Duncan, believed that dance could communicate emotion, but Graham also felt that dancers must be trained artists so they could communicate clearly. She developed her own style of movement from the natural rhythm of inhaling (expanding) and exhaling (contracting or tightening) the muscles. Her technique became as established and complex as ballet, which enabled her to train dancers effectively.

Graham was interested in human emotions and motivations. To explore these themes, she turned to individuals of historic interest and their personal struggles and difficult choices. Some of her dances were based on known stories, like Greek myths. Often, she flipped the focus of these stories, which were mostly about male heroes, and told them from a women’s perspective. Her female characters were often intense, strong, and powerful. No surprise, Graham danced the main role in many of her works.

All of the elements of Graham’s productions enhanced their emotional and psychological impact. For example, she worked with composers who wrote music specifically for her choreography. She collaborated with scenic designers to build spaces that suited the setting of her dances. She also created many of her own costumes. Each dance performance was a total theatrical experience with every stage element working together to further her vision.

Graham succeeded in her goal. She not only elevated modern dance to the status of a serious art form, but she also demonstrated the thoughtful, personal, and emotional content this new form of dance could communicate in harmony with music, set, and costuming.

The Martha Graham Dance Company is still in existence today, and elements of her technique have become commonplace in dance classes all over the world.

To learn more about Martha Graham, go to: A Dancer's Journal: Martha Graham.  


What About Today?

These days, modern dance often borrows from popular styles like hip-hop, break dancing, jazz, and tap, which have their own interesting histories. Contemporary dance even borrows from ballet with its current emphasis on highly trained dancers.

So where will dance go next?

It all depends on the next rebel who redefines it.

Movement in Space and Time
Merce Cunningham (1919–2009)

Merce Cunningham knew Martha Graham’s work well since he had performed in her company for several years. In time, however, Cunningham would rebel against Graham’s definition of modern dance.

For Martha Graham, movement was full of meaning; for Cunningham, it was simply movement. Cunningham wanted to create works that were not deeply personal or psychological. He felt movement should be appreciated for what it was, rather than what it communicated. Dance itself became the subject of his dances. He did not have any central figure or character. All of his dancers were equally important. They did not act out any drama or narrative and did not express any obvious emotion. Moments of tenderness or intensity could occur, but they came from the movement itself, not from any imposed storyline.

Cunningham created a movement vocabulary that looked more like ballet than Graham’s. Instead of focusing on contracting and releasing through the pelvis as Graham had, Cunningham’s dancers used a strong and supple spine, with arms and legs often extending outward. His dancers had to have amazing strength and control to execute the changes of direction his choreography required.

Cunningham also experimented with organizing movement by chance. He created sections of a dance, and then asked an audience member to toss a coin to determine the order the sections would be performed in. Over time, his use of chance intensified, helping him to try combinations of movement he wouldn’t have thought of on his own. Cunningham even embraced advances in technology, using computer programs with digital dancers to generate movement ideas.

In contrast to Graham’s total theater, Cunningham’s theater was comprised of separate elements that came together only in performance. He created the movement, but did not dictate what the music or set should be. The music was often unknown to the dancers until the night of the performance. The only thing the dance and music had in common was that they began and ended at the same time.

Cunningham also gave minimal instructions for his set and costume designers. Many of the designers were his friends—important visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella. When all of the elements came together in performance, they were not unified, but separate. The movement, music, set, and costumes coexisted in the performance, but had nothing to do with one another, like noises on a street.

It is hard to imagine someone rebelling against the art of Martha Graham more than Cunningham did, but those who came after him continued to push the definition of dance in different directions.



Kirsten Bodensteiner

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment


Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post Modern Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Mazo, Joseph. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1977.

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