There are few things in the world as confusing as contemporary dance. All right! There are lots of things in the world that are a lot more confusing than contemporary dance, the popularity of celebrity chefs for one, but there is certainly a great deal in this haggard, creaky profession that confuses the brightest of minds and stumps the greatest of thinkers! So here we present for you the ultimate pocket guide to contemporary dance to impress your friends with and dazzle your nearest and dearest at those horrendous dinner parties.

Isadora who?

Most folks think it was all started by Martha Graham back in the day but this is not so. The earliest proponent of dance in the contemporary style was that oldest of sticks, Isadora Duncan back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Back in those, almost biblical, times it was called ‘free movement’ and some have likened her particular style to what is currently known as ‘wafting about’.

Things to note: Ms Duncan died in suitably theatrical way when her scarf became entangled in the wheel of her moving car and she choked to death.

Martha Graham

Often credited as being the mother of contemporary dance. She encouraged dramatic expression through movement and created the now infamous ‘Graham Technique” endured by dance students throughout the world on a daily basis. In today’s light her works, some of which exist on film, look a little stunted and dry but back in the early part of the 20th century they were little short of revolutionary.

Ms Graham kept on working into very old age. Upon her death the company that she founded which also bears her name went through years of turmoil after some bloke called Ron Protas claimed complete ownership over anything and everything to do with the company. A judge threw out his claims a few years ago and now all is well.

Merce Cunningham

The oldest living choreographer, probably. Has created several dozens works all based around his signature themes of chance, abstract theory, bizarre music and, some would say, irritating the hell out of his audience. Loved and hated by dancers and dance makers in almost equal measure mostly disliked by dance students because they are forced to sit through badly made BBC programmes about him from the seventies during their training.

Things to Note: One of his works was famously performed on BBC radio back in the day. The BBC thought they were being very clever, nobody else agreed!

Contact Improvisation.

Dancers have always improvised and they have always been banging into one another so contact improvisation was inevitable. The technique involves two or more dancers contorting there bodies around one another in such a fashion as to facilitate fluid, natural and safe movement in all manner of ways until at some point you either drift apart, get stuck in a tangle of arms and legs or one dancer loses the plot completely and the other one ends up in hospital. Contact improvisation is an awful lot like marriage in many respects!

Things to note: Be wary of ‘grabby’ male dancers who like nothing more than ‘accidentally’ man handling a female dancers anatomy. Such types should be dealt with by way of a swift kick to the trossacks!

Wafting About:

Distinctive style of dancing that involves running around on stage flailing your arms and legs about with a pained expression on your face. Dancers and dance makers are under the distinctly misguided impression the audience are impressed by this, rest assured, we are not, so stop it!

Video Dance.

Marked more often than not by the utterly contemptible efforts of dance makers to commit their ideas to film. Dancers who perform on stage with effortless brilliance are forced by dance film makers to execute abstract concepts that have little or no relevance to anything whatsoever. One person, who shall remain nameless, suggested that when people watch dance films they ‘do not want to see dance’. Beginning, middle and end is all we can say at this stage.

Sound Scapes

Music is the stuff of life, sound-scapes are the stuff of migraines, insanity, witless musicians and idiotic choreographers. A mix of seagulls over a waste dump, rusty tin cans being dragged backwards across cobble stones and a rhythm delivered by a Bontempi children’s organ is not the way to win your audience over. Dance makers who deploy these audio nightmares seem to be forgetting that their audiences have ears.

Things to note: Emergency earplugs are always a good bet when attending a contemporary dance performance, just in case and take your iPod for the long silent bits!

Pretentious Ideas.

Exhibited by many dance makers who are in turn looked upon with derision by dancers most of whom struggle with little success to interpret the often bizarre ramblings of the man/woman in charge. Easiest to spot when dancers are in discussion with their choreographer and the dancer has a bemused look on his/her face whilst simultaneously trying to look as if they understand every word being said.

Things to note: Spotting pretentiousness on stage is easy if any of the following things happen then you have your culprit! Nothing moves for 5 minutes, the publicity describes the piece as a ‘journey’, ‘exploration’ or ‘study’, the company is called ‘Random’ (just kidding, Ed!)

Bare Feet

Most CD shows are conducted in bare feet so the dancers may feel at one with the ‘earth’. Dance makers who insist on their employees wearing shoes, trainers, high heels, welly boots are just not trying hard enough!

Things to note: see also, Pretentious Ideas.


What dancers actually want to wear on their feet when doing class and performing because, and we all know this to be true, it feels a lot better on the dancers feet. Not recommended on wooden floors since the resulting impact with ground when the dancer fall on his/her backside will hurt, a lot!

Inside out T-Shirt

Worn not because the dancer has failed to wash his or her clothes or lost all grip on common sense but because the inside becomes covered in sweat and therefore very cold. Dancer turns t-shirt inside out in order to have a slightly less wet and cold garment in contact with their body. Also works for sweatshirts, tracksuit bottoms. Does not really work for underwear though!


Drunk in copious amounts to both reduce the risk of dehydration and as a comfort blanket when driven to distraction by the aforementioned pretentious ideas when working with choreographers. The water in the bottle is not actually Evian but has been filled from the changing room taps which may explain the frequent bouts of illness some dancers suffer from!


What every dancer has to do every single day of the week without fail lest their body falls to bits and they can no longer move, technique is the dancers religion, the studio is their church………………… Yeah right!


Unlike football players who will crumble like dust upon the slightest contact and take 6 months off, contemporary dancers are required to continue working with arms and legs almost severed. Only if they are very lucky will they have access to a physiotherapist but they have to pay for it themselves. Complaining is frowned upon.

After Show/Pre Show Discussion.

If the company has one of these then the chances are the work is utterly incomprehensible. Your only hope is they have some good music and great movement. Also carried out because a few dance makers love hearing the sound of their own voice. Heckling is encouraged by us but frowned upon by others, you decide!