Do the dance movements have to have a meaning behind them?

by Tess Kwan
(Hong Kong)

I am Grade 12 student from Canadian International School of Hong Kong. I have been researching about contemporary dance and I'm struggling a little with it's conventions. As a contemporary dance choreographer, do the dance movements have to have a meaning behind them? I have taken a look at the 'Contemporary Dance' history page in your site and Merce Cunningham believed that there was no emotional references, theme, narrative, etc. and the movements do not reflect on anything. Thus, I was wondering does this apply to all contemporary dances?

Your reply will really help clear up my confusion. I really appreciate your help, thank you.

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Oct 22, 2011
Answer from Maria
by: Maria

Dear Tess Kwan,

The ideological background of Merce Cunningham does not apply to all contemporary dances. That is just what he established for his own aesthetics and methods.

You might be confused because the expression 'contemporary dance' is used to talk about a really wide variety of choreographic practices which might have common features but can be sometimes really different.

In rough terms, you could say that any dance could be whether ABSTRACT OR NARRATIVE. And, in between, there are also dances that are both of them and/or not strictly clear about their nature.

Being an example of any of those ways does not make a dance be more 'contemporary' or not. Those are just possibilities that are all accepted by contemporary dance and that are chosen by the choreographers for each aesthetical project.

I hope this answer your question. Don't hesitate to write back in this same thread if you still have doubts. This is a matter that might interest many other visitors like you!

Warm regards,


Oct 29, 2011
by: Tess

Contemporary dance is very similar to Physical Theatre in the sense that they both make use of the body. However in a lot of Physical Theatre performances, notably the theatre company - DV8, they explores very controversial topics and they tend to explore the context of the work more than the style of movements. So, would you agree then that contemporary dance is more based on movement style then rather than context? (as you have mentioned that the movements don't necessary have a meaning behind them)

Oct 29, 2011
Answer 2, from Maria
by: Maria

Dear Tess,

I would not make a general statement concerning the characteristics of contemporary dance. Each contemporary dance company, choreographer or even project has its own attributes or features.

You would have to analyze each piece to know if it is based on movement style rather than context, because the nature of what we call contemporary dance is heterogeneous and unstable.

If you are searching for a general understanding of how or what contemporary dance is, you will find that the definition of the expression is broad and covers many particular choreographic types and styles. The fact that it is so wide leaves the possibility for everything that's included to be really diverse.

We have a definition for contemporary dance at our glossary. Just scroll down looking for the expression 'contemporary dance' to read it:

dance terms page at

I hope this clarifies your doubts further.

Best wishes,


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