What is classical dance?
The most inclusive definition I’ve found is used throughout K-12 educational documents and refers to classical dance as:
“Dance that has been developed into highly stylized structures within a culture. Generally developed within the court or circle of power in a society.”
Rooted in Europe, ballet would probably be considered the classical dance of “the west.” Other regions have their own classical dance forms – Indian or Cambodian classical dance are examples. Such forms are sometimes included under an umbrella of “folk dance,” “ethnic dance,” or even “world dance.” Depending on who you talk to, however, these terms are all synonymous or all different classifications.
There is typically much confusion among dancers about the labeling of dance. I am no history scholar but I will do my best to make sense of the terms as I understand them.
What Is Classical Ballet?
I have heard and comprehended the definition of classical ballet in two ways. The ABT online dictionary provides a pretty clear and concise definition of both usages:
- The traditional style of ballet, which stresses the academic technique developed through the centuries of the existence of ballet.
- A ballet in which the style and structure adhere to the definite framework established in the nineteenth century. Examples of classical ballets are Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
In other words, classical ballet can be defined as ballet studied in the tradition that has been passed down, relatively unchanged at its core, since the birth of the technique. There are variances in the methodology of classical ballet study which are often based upon region. Vagonova, Cecchetti, and more recently Balanchine or R.A.D. are examples. The term classical ballet is generally used as a means of differentiating these traditional principles of study from those of contemporary ballet.
Within classical ballet additional labels may be applied to works and performances that tend to reflect the era in which they were created (i.e., Romantic, Russian, Diaghliev era, etc.). Unfortunately, certain performed works within this lineage are referred to as being of the classical ballet era, or classical ballets. These typically refer to works of Petipa dating from the 19th and early 20th century (such as the ones listed above). Works that have employed the language, phrasing, structure, and techniques of classical ballet in the 20th century and beyond (many of Balanchine’s works are a good example) have typically been labeled as neoclassical, as they seem to bridge the gap between those in the classical ballet tradition and contemporary ballet by stretching the boundries of the classical ballet “rules.”
Contemporary ballet, generally refers to a work that takes its technique (and pointework) from classical ballet but also utilizes abstracted (or less literal) movement ideas, manipulation of the spine and torso in movement, and choreographic processes similar to those in modern/contemporary dance. Here, the focus is often more on the movement itself rather than a narrative, or story. Today’s students of ballet typically study classical techniques along with modern dance techniques so that they are able to adapt their classical techniques to fit any of the above genres.
Modern Dance vs. Contemporary Dance
Modern dance, like the art of ballet in the 17th century, was at one point (the early 1900’s) a new idea (see “What is Modern Dance?” for a little history lesson).
I have heard people refer to the techniques and works of people like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and other originators as “classical modern dance” – sounds like an oxymoron, I know. (Note: traditional modern dance is yet another mutation).
Typically modern dance has been dropped altogether when referring to 21st century concert dance works. For now, these works simply fall under the label of contemporary dance, which you can also read more about in the linked article above. If, or when, there is a shift of focus within this realm of dance, perhaps a new (and likely confusing) label will be attached to it!
As you can see, the repetitious or sometimes redundant terminology in categorizing creates difficulty in talking about dance.
Labels are often unsatisfactory and are argued and debated, creating even further confusion. But, I think it is helpful for students of dance to understand that even though there is sometimes an overlapping of terms, there is a difference between technique and choreography in classifying dance.
For labeling purposes, all work/art/choreography being created now is contemporary but may be subject to a change in labeling in the future. A new or current work can evoke aesthetics and processes of the past, but would probably be described as contemporary.
Older works are often categorized by both the techniques that inform them and by the era in which they were created.
The techniques studied by dancers which inform contemporary concert dance choreography are (in the broadest terms) modern dance, classical ballet, and possibly jazz dance, and can also be infused with elements of vernacular (or social/ballroom) dance, ethnic dance forms, martial arts, etc.
Through study of the history of dance and through experiencing a broad range of dance genres, one becomes more equipped to recognize relationships, influences and changes in the timeline of dance (which is really more important than the label itself).
Location, Location, Location
Just remember that in labeling dance, sometimes it just depends on who you talk to, where they’re from, and their background in dance.
In addition, we must recognize, of course, that labels are limited and really only useful when reading, writing, or talking about dance. Dance, by its nature – a language of movement – is an art form that resists labeling.
Don’t worry if it’s all still confusing.
It is confusing for those working and creating within, and writing about the dance world.
In fact, if you feel you would like to add or respond to my thoughts, please feel free.
The more recent something is, the harder it is to define because we are still in the midst of change. And change in art occurs as slowly or rapidly as the world around it. Compare the mutations of dance in the last 100 years to the mutations of earlier centuries and I think you’ll see it runs parallel to advances in technology, industry, and communication.
The Dancer believes that his art has something to say which cannot be expressed in words or in any other way than by dancing… there are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words. There are movements which impinge upon the nerves with a strength that is incomparable, for movement has power to stir the senses and emotions, unique in itself. This is the dancer’s justification for being, and his reason for searching further for deeper aspects of his art. – Doris Humphrey
If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it. – Isadora Duncan
Dance isn’t something that can be explained in words; it has to be danced. – Paige Arden
Talk about dance? Dance is not something to talk about. Dance is to dance. – Peter St. James