What is the Difference?

What is the difference between Modern Dance, Contemporary Dance and Lyrical Dance?
Sydney, Age 14,  from Washington 

This frequently asked question is one that is heavily debated currently among our industry and it’s professionals.  I don’t blame you for being confused,  it is a tough distinction!

I think that in order to define these styles one must look at their rich history.  This is a quick history lesson that I believe will help define these styles and help you gain a better understanding of what they encompass.  Of course, if you would like to delve further, there is a wealth of dance history to research and learn about!

Ballet is the foundation of all concert dance and dates back to the 1600‘s.  It should always be studied and is crucial to your strength building and control.

Modern Dance began in the early 1900‘s as a rebellion towards all things ballet.  It’s pioneers rejected the strict rules of ballet and believed that dance should express or communicate their inner feelings and be free from the strict rules and upright rigidness of ballet.  Instead of the upright torso, light and lifted center, and precise lines, Modern dance was more relaxed.  It used your body with gravity and danced into the ground.  It’s pioneers built their own techniques which utilized contraction and release, fall and recovery, improvisation, moving through the spine, floor work, contact improvisation and everyday gestures to communicate their feelings or desired expression with their audience. For many years Contemporary and Modern Dance were synonymous with each other.  However,  in recent years, Contemporary has evolved into its own style and Modern dance is used primarily to refer to the techniques developed by the pioneers. Some great Modern Dance pioneers include:  Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey to name a quick few. Here is a great example from a legendary pioneer of Modern dance, Alvin Ailey, Revelations.  Also a great video example of the Lester Horton Technique of Modern Dance taught in the classroom.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, dance was influenced by a public that loved dancing to the popular music of the time,  Jazz Music. Jazz and Tap dance developed during this time period and therefore share much of the same terminology, foundations and roots.  Jazz Dance quickly moved from a social dance form into the Broadway world and has been evolving and fusing with other styles of dance ever since.  Jazz Dance is deeply rooted in the technique, strength and lines of ballet, which must be studied to execute the style correctly.  Jazz Dance also has been heavily influenced by the grounded nature of hip hop and african dance and it’s showy Broadway Dance roots!

Lyrical Dance has always been described to me as the expression of the lyrics of the song to the audience using a fusion of Ballet and Jazz styles.  This style requires the dancer to master both Ballet and Jazz techniques and then use that movement to express the lyrics and musicality of the song.  A lyrical dancer must  master the ability to connect each movement to the next, transition seamlessly by sustaining a movement for as long as musically relevant and flow effortlessly into the next movement all while expressing their emotions to the audience through their movement.  Which definitely requires maturity, finesse, musicality and many years at the ballet barre!

Contemporary Dance has become extremely popular over the last ten years.  It is strongly rooted in the fundamentals of modern dance but it has evolved over the years to pull from every style of dance to express the dancers own interpretation to the audience.  Contemporary has the  same ideals and foundations as modern dance. The movement should communicate or express something to the audience, be open to the dancer’s interpretation and reject the rules of ballet.  However, there is no limit to the styles at which you may draw upon to communicate to your audience.  This style is characterized by it’s versatility and limitless boundaries.  There is a complete and limitless freedom to Contemporary movement!  Contemporary can be conceptual,  which tells the audience a story.  It can be pedestrian, which shares a moment or experience from real life.   It can even be technical, taking ballet lines and breaking the rules! It could include elements from all kinds of dance including,  but not limited to: african, ballet, jazz, acro, modern, hip hop, miming, you get the idea etc…  This particular style is so hard to describe as it is constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of dance!  In recent years it has been heavily influenced by lyrical dance and therefore the styles can be hard to differentiate.

It is important to note that although Modern and Contemporary Dance have been rebellions from the ballet rules, the freedom still requires that dancers train heavily in the technique of ballet in order to properly and skillfully then execute the movements that “break the rules”.    A dancer must still have a mastery of both turn-out and parallel, strength in their feet and ankles as well as complete mastery of their center.  This is why Modern and Contemporary dance is typically not introduced to a dancer until later in their training and education.  It requires a certain maturity and strength to perform properly!  I would say that a dancer should train in ballet for at least 4 or 5 years before they begin to explore the fundamentals of Contemporary.  That being said,  with all its influence, a great contemporary dancer will also be an expert in the Jazz, Hip Hop and Lyrical styles of dance…  so study it all my friends!

My hope is that with this little history lesson you can start to think more about how much dance has evolved, how much each style has influenced each other and how important it is to understand it’s rich history.  The trained eye can see the difference between the three, recognize the modern dance foundations and appreciate differences.

Personally, I love that dance styles are blurring. I enjoy watching movement that pushes the boundaries and breaks all the rules! The fusion is beautiful.  Here is a recent example of a brilliant piece from So You Think You Can Dance 2014, choreographed by Mandy Moore.  This piece contains many wonderful textbook examples of Modern, Lyrical, Contemporary and Ballet dance. It is difficult to define the piece into one style particular style. Together it is just exquisite!

Hope this helped!

Happy dancing!


Lets further the art of dance together… ASK MS. SONYA, I want to help!



  1. People constantly ask me this, since not only am I a dancer but I adore Lyrical – which a lot of people haven’t heard of. I’m so glad to have such a clear definition to be able to point them to now! 🙂

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