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Contemporary vs. Lyrical - Separating the Styles

Check out our recent Podcast Episode inspired by this Blog Article!

The nature of the world we live in today nearly necessitates fusion - a melding of distinct styles or ideas into one unique entity. From Asian fusion cuisine to country rap fusion music, our culture thrives on combining things that might not necessarily go together. It is no different in the dance world. While a fusion of dance styles can be interesting, it can make it difficult to correctly place routines in categories at competition. The genres of lyrical and contemporary dance can be incredibly confusing because of their similarities, so today we’re gathering opinions from IDA judges and teachers Jen Garaffa, Mary Roberts, Miranda Spada, and Max Vasapoli to clear up any questions teachers and choreographers may have regarding the two styles.

Contemporary Dance

Coming directly out of the MFA program at Florida State University, Mary Roberts considers contemporary dance to be “a research vehicle to dissect, analyze, and interpret what dance and movement are saying and creating culturally. Contemporary dance follows the modern dance lineage, and seeks to question and dismantle previous dance forms.” Oftentimes at dance competitions, this more academic explanation can get lost, however, it’s incredibly important to remember that contemporary dance grew out of the techniques of ballet, jazz, and modern, the latter of which is a direct ancestor of contemporary dance. We wouldn’t have contemporary if not for the pioneers of modern and jazz, who sought to break the molds and expectations of traditional ballet dancing.

Miranda Spada adds, “Contemporary dance [...places a] strong emphasis on understanding music, rhythm, the space around a dancer, and how to take technical classical lines and make them different. Contemporary tends to be based on the more avant garde, and can include themes and ideas vs a clear concise story. Conceptualized dancing is explored, where a dancer and/or choreographer takes a dance technique such as levels, space, accents, patterns, phrasing, and uses that to develop into a piece versus relying on a preconceived theme or idea.” Less about a story or narrative, contemporary dance seeks not necessarily to entertain, but to educate, provoke, and explore different movement.

When placing your routines in the contemporary category at competition, you must consider the following questions: is this piece dancer-centric? Meaning, have I allowed this dancer a level of personal exploration within the movement, through the means of improvisation? Is there a specific visual or internal theme that this piece follows? Have I included classical lines, but distorted them in a way that is new and different? Does this routine use techniques from the modern and ballet syllabus?

Lyrical Dance

Lyrical dance began as an offshoot of jazz dance, and was originally termed “lyrical jazz” for that reason. Max Vasapoli defines lyrical dance as “combining the technique of ballet and the fluidity of jazz dance. A unique trait of lyrical is the emotional connection and storytelling brought to life by the song lyrics. Movement may be choreographed to the vocal performance of a song, not just the rhythm.”

With a similar definition, Mary Roberts agrees and adds, “Lyrical dance is typically given from choreographer to dancer, with an expectation of the dancer committing to the choreography as it is set, but adding breath and soul to the movement from the dancer’s interpretation. Lyrical dance, whether performed on cruise ships, in concert, or at competitions, is performed as an entertainment dance form, created to connect to an audience in a specific manner.” The important point to remember about lyrical dance, as we know it today, is that it seeks to connect and entertain through a clear storyline while using elements of ballet and jazz technique.

When placing your routines in the lyrical category, ask the following questions: does this routine tell a story that follows the lyrics of the music? Does my choreography necessitate that the dancer repeat it exactly the same every performance? Have I used elements of ballet and jazz technique within the choreography? Are the lines and pictures I’ve created clearly reflecting the emotion of the piece?

As judges, it is incredibly difficult to judge a routine accurately if it is not placed in the correct category. Jen Garaffa states, “Instead of enjoying the work that is there, the judges are spending time trying to figure out how to fairly score something they weren’t prepared for. Imagine going to a movie theater ready to see a great romantic comedy and instead a food documentary comes on the screen - it takes a while to adjust your brain to be open to that. A judge only has 3 minutes total to adjust, absorb and react. If you stay true to style and genre, it allows the judges to enjoy the work and offer great feedback to the dancers.”

As choreographers, you can help us help you by placing your routines correctly. Miranda Spada adds, “Contemporary and lyrical dance are often confused because not many people have their own personal definition of each style. Each choreographer and creator has stamped their own type of contemporary dance and we as a society are trying to find the black and white areas of both. The more it becomes integrated into this generation of dancers, the more we see lyrical dances competing in a contemporary category; just to say they are, because the idea of it sounds harder, or because they need an extra category to place a routine.” The open category exists for this reason - if you have a piece that blurs the lines of style, it is the perfect place to enter the routine.

As human beings, we crave categories - they help us to make sense of the world around us. When those categories begin to mesh together, we as dance educators must balance the fine line between losing the integrity of a technique and allowing a style to develop.

Max Vasapoli puts it well when he says, “Fusion of styles allows dance to continue to evolve. However, the criterion of dance competitions dictates differentiation. Learning the subtle differences between the styles is an important tool for dancers to become stronger performers and collaborators. One of the many values of a dance education is learning how different styles "feel" to dance through muscle memory. Similar concepts and themes unite the two styles, but their intents are intrinsically unique.”


Photos: "Contemporary" - Dancer: Jennilee Paez/Rising Stars Dance Academy. Choreographer - IDA Judge Jackie Nowicki - provided by ASH

"Lyrical" - Dancer: Gabriella Papa/American Dance Academy. Choreographer: Kailee Combs & IDA Judge Jessica Olinik - provided by ASH

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