When watching dance, one may be quick to designate the piece being watched as classical or contemporary without giving much thought or effort. What is it about the dance that allows one to quickly jump to this conclusion? After contemplating this, I find that the music, use of the dancer’s upper body, and incorporation of “street” dance are some of the major factors that differentiate classical from contemporary dance.
In my opinion, one difference that separates contemporary jazz from more classical styles of dance is the music. In contemporary styles of dance, there is a stronger beat and often more electronic sound effects, where more classical forms of dance use music that often has more instrumentation and less vocal effects. Also, the music that is used for more classical styles generally has a much more even or square beat that is the same throughout the entire piece, whereas music used in more contemporary forms of jazz may not have the same beat for the entirety of the piece. The difference demonstrated in the beats of music is a clue to me of the style of dance that goes with them. Classical styles are generally more rigid, meaning that they follow guidelines, or a clearly outlined technique, whereas contemporary jazz more likely disregards a formulated technique. Though music is not directly dance, dance and music go hand in hand. Therefore, the type of music dictates the style of dance, which is why I believe that it differentiates classical from contemporary.
Classical styles of dance, including classical forms of jazz, usage of the upper body is much different than that of contemporary jazz. Classical styles follow a technique, or specific style that has a very clearly outlined and specific placement for the upper body. There are of course always exceptions to this specific placement as requested from the style or technique, but through my observations I have noticed that the upper body is more properly placed and held in classical styles. There is by far much more freedom in the upper body in contemporary jazz. In many instances, even in set choreography, the dancers have much more artistic freedom in their upper bodies. Also, contemporary jazz allows for more options with the upper body both stylistically and dynamically. The definition of “beauty” in dance has evolved over the years, which has allowed for more options of the upper body that today’s audience would still find interesting and aesthetically pleasing. There are also more options dynamically in contemporary jazz. It is more acceptable to have sharp or rigid movements than it is in purely classical forms. In my opinion this is because the popping action may have been seen as sensual to the audience of classical styles.
Another major difference in contemporary jazz and classical styles is the incorporation of everyday dance moves that can be found on the street, such as hip hop or break dancing, into choreography in contemporary jazz. Although some ballroom dance may be incorporated into classical jazz, the extent of its usage is not near the extent that contemporary jazz uses.
The mere term “contemporary” is arbitrary. What we define as “contemporary” dance today will become something else in a few years after another style emerges in the dance world that will become the “contemporary” style of the day.