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10 Steps of Modern Dance

Modern dance is free movement—precisely choreographed and controlled.
dancer image by Vladimir Melnikov from Fotolia.com

Modern dance is an American contribution to choreography, much as jazz is a product of American culture. Pioneers in modern dance were and are bold, experimental, initially shocking and obsessively concerned with exploring the language of the body and all its possibilities. Martha Graham, Ruth St, Denis, Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey and more incorporated ballet, jazz, ethnic dance and a unique series of moves that are more than steps—but as clearly defined and as challenging to master.


In the Lateral, the dancer stands with head and spine in alignment, the supporting foot turned out. The arm over the supporting leg comes straight up next to the ear as the torso tilts, unbroken to the side, over the supporting leg. The opposite leg lifts pointed through the toes. The other arm swings up as the leg rises and parallels the straight arm next to the head. The body continues to tilt sideways from the pelvis in one unbroken line. A Lateral T shows the line of the torso and extended leg at a right angle to the supporting leg. A Low Lateral tilts the torso downward and the extended leg up in the air.


The Spiral is a torso twist that begins in the pelvis. As the body turns, each level is separately articulated all the way up the spine—pelvis, lower spine, mid-section, shoulders, neck, head. The head remains in alignment with the spine. The spiral releases in the same order: pelvis up to shoulders, neck and then head. Each movement is part of a smooth progression with the spine as its center.

Stag Leap

The Stag Leap is a very high jump in a split but, although both legs are parallel to the floor, the front leg is bent from the knee inward. Most often the arms are either thrust up in a “V,” palms facing out and down, or one-forward, one-to-the-side in a ninety-degree angle, palms down.

Stag Turn

In a Stag Turn, the supporting knee is slightly bent; the other leg is up in the air and bent behind the body. The arm on the supporting side is thrust straight back, palms down. The opposite arm is thrust cleanly forward, palms down as the dancer turns around.

Primitive Squat

A Primitive Squat is a hop that lands in a deep second-position plie—the feet are turned out heel-to-heel and the knees are bent.

Flat Back

Flat Back is actually a series of moves but the basic movement makes a “tabletop” of the body. The dancer stands in second position—feet turned out heel-to-heel. The arms are down along the sides as the body bends forward from the hips without breaking the line from the top of the head to the lower spine. The bend continues until the entire torso is parallel to the floor. Then the arms come out from the sides in unison, arc completely forward and stretch out ahead of the torso parallel to each other, forming an extension of the flat back.


In the Hinge, the dancer balances on the balls of the feet, keeps a straight back and head and sends the knees forward as the torso tilts back and the arms are held straight out in front.

The Contraction

Martha Graham loved Contractions in which the mid-section is pulled back against a movement. The action begins in the pelvis, and articulates up the spine as the breath is exhaled. The dancer aims to lengthen the space between each vertebra as the move progresses to the neck and the head, which are always in alignment with the spine.

The Release

The Release occurs on the inhalation and also begins in the pelvis. The move travels up the spine in the same order as the contraction, restoring the torso to a straight alignment. It typically counters the Contraction.

The High Release

A High Release, rather than ending with the spine and upper body in an upright, neutral position, tilts the breastbone up. The shoulder blades appear to rest on a bar or shelf. The head remains aligned with the spine and the rib cage remains over the hips. The lower back is not bent.

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