What is contemporary

July 7, 2013

A year ago I took Cat Cogliandro’s beginner workshop for contemporary dance at Broadway Dance Center. There were varying levels of experience in the class. Out of the fifteen students, three were men. One of them, clearly already trained in all things dance, wanted to brush up on his skills before returning to the stage. The second man, trained in ballet in Paris, wanted to understand the challenges of contemporary. And the third man, who clearly had no training at all, had perfectly arched feet.

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In one exercise, Cat had us link limbs one by one. We did this while crouched to the floor. We crawled through the gaps made from our tangled arms and legs. “Get in there—get in there—get in there!” Cat cried. The next challenge was to break apart from this chain as fluidly as possible, one dancer at a time, with one trying to hold on to those slipping away. What I concluded from this exercise was sudden: We are constantly escaping from somebody, or else holding on too tight.

Cat said: “Get out, get out, get out!”

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Definitions of contemporary dance vary. It is a combination of ballet, modern, and lyrical, a smooth flow that, when you break it down, is full of unintuitive oppositions, angularities, and doubled, tripled, or quadrupled rhythms. No one style stands out the most, but ballet is the foundation, the rules that one must master—have mastered—in order to know how to break them. Most acknowledge the debt to Martha Graham.

I didn’t grow up with formal dance training, and not knowing the rules can be maddening. I am not flexible, I have little balance, my pirouette limit is two in a row (and no more than once a day, successfully). But I can tap into emotion and musicality. This vocabulary is familiar. I hold on to this vocabulary in all the contemporary classes I take.

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On the first day of class, Cat asked us what we hoped to accomplish here. The answers were as varied as the levels of experience: I want to be more flexible. I want to get in touch with my emotions. I want to be on So You Think You Can Dance. I want to spice it up for my boyfriend.

I said: “I want you to make me sob.”

Cat nodded: “Done.”

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