Classical Dance vs Contemporary Dance: The Key Differences

When it comes to ballet, there are many different styles that have evolved over the years. Two of the most well-known styles are classical dance and contemporary dance. At first glance, they may seem similar, but upon closer inspection, there are nuanced differences that set them apart. Classical dance carries a rich history and has roots that date back centuries, while contemporary dance is a more recent development that incorporates a blend of modern and post-modern dance styles. The techniques, costumes, music, and choreography of each dance form also differ from one another. In this article, we will explore the main differences between classical dance and contemporary dance, and gain an understanding of what makes each style unique.

History of Classical Dance

History Of Classical Dance
As we dive into the world of classical dance, one can’t help but marvel at its timeless beauty and elegance that has enchanted audiences for centuries. The history of classical dance could be traced back to the Renaissance period when ballet and court dances were the norm. From there, it evolved into a sophisticated art form that became synonymous with grace, beauty, and precise technique. To learn more about the origins and evolution of classical dance, click on this link.


The origins of classical dance can be traced back to the courts of Renaissance Italy, where ballet was developed as a form of entertainment for royal weddings and other special events. Ballet quickly spread throughout Europe, and by the 18th century, it had become a highly formalized art form with its own set of movements and techniques.

Contemporary dance, on the other hand, has a more recent origin. It emerged as a rebellion against the strict rules of classical ballet in the early 20th century. Contemporary dance was a way for choreographers to break free from the traditional movements and explore new forms of expression.

Both classical and contemporary dance have evolved over time. Classical dance has been influenced by changing fashion and cultural trends, while contemporary dance has incorporated elements of other dance styles, such as jazz and hip-hop.

If you want to learn more about classical dance, check out our article on famous classical dances, or read about the technique, posture and gracefulness that are central to the art form. If you’re interested in the history and principles of classical dance, our article on classicism principles and characteristics may be of interest, or you can learn about the significance of costumes and music. Finally, if you want to explore the influencers in classical dance, our article on top 10 classical dance influencers will introduce you to some of the greatest performers and choreographers in history.


Classical dance has undergone a long and intricate evolution. Here are some of the key points:

  • 15th-16th century: The origins of classical ballet can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries, which saw the birth of court dances such as the pavane and galliard. These dances were characterized by intricate footwork, elegant arm movements, and a focus on harmony and symmetry.
  • 17th century: It was in the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century that ballet began to develop into a codified art form. Under the guidance of Pierre Beauchamp, the king’s personal dance teacher, a system of five foot positions and a vocabulary of steps and gestures were established. Ballet continued to be a court spectacle, with elaborate costumes and sets, and performances were often accompanied by vocal or instrumental music.
  • 18th century: The 18th century marked the golden age of classical ballet, with choreographers such as Jean-Georges Noverre and Marius Petipa creating works that are still performed today. Romantic ballet emerged as a new style, with its emphasis on graceful movements, ethereal storytelling, and the use of pointe shoes. This era also saw the rise of ballet as a professional art form, with the opening of ballet schools and the establishment of ballet companies.
  • 19th century: The 19th century saw the continued development of ballet, with the introduction of new techniques and the blending of classical and romantic styles. Along with the continued popularity of ballet in Europe, ballet also began to spread to other parts of the world, including Russia, America, and Australia.
  • 20th century: The 20th century saw the emergence of neoclassical ballet, with choreographers such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins pushing the boundaries of traditional ballet technique and storytelling. Ballet also continued to evolve in Europe, with the emergence of the British ballet scene and the rise of contemporary ballet.

As classical ballet evolved, so did the costumes, music, and choreography. Nonetheless, the focus on technique and the pursuit of physical perfection have remained central to the art form.

Characteristics of Classical Dance

Characteristics Of Classical Dance
Classical dance is a longstanding and traditional form of dance that has been developed over centuries. This form of dance involves a structured and stringent technique, elaborate costumes, and specific accompanying music, which has been passed down over time. The movement style and choreography of classical dance have been perfected and refined through the years, making it a recognizable and celebrated genre of the performing arts. In this section, we will explore the various defining characteristics of classical dance, highlighting its technique, costumes, and choreography.


When it comes to technique, both classical and contemporary dance require years of training and practice in order to perfect the movements. However, there are some key differences in their respective techniques:

Classical dance technique:

  • Emphasis on correct posture, turnout, and alignment
  • Use of traditional ballet vocabulary, including arabesques, pliés, and relevés
  • Precision and control in movements, with an emphasis on maintaining a certain aesthetic
  • Partner work and lifting, with an emphasis on the male dancer as the “support” for the female dancer

Contemporary dance technique:

  • More relaxed posture and emphasis on spinal mobility
  • Use of a range of vocabularies, including elements of modern, jazz, and ballet
  • Fluidity and improvisation in movement, with less focus on precision and more on expression
  • Lack of gender stereotyping in partnering, with more emphasis on collaboration and support between dancers regardless of gender

Both techniques require a great deal of physical strength, flexibility, and control. However, the emphasis on precision versus expression and the use of traditional ballet vocabulary versus a range of vocabularies set these techniques apart from each other.

Costumes and Music

When it comes to costumes and music, the differences between classical dance and contemporary dance are significant, and they can often be used to distinguish between the two.

Classical Dance Costumes

Classical dance, with its long and rich history, often has very specific requirements for costumes. Dancers typically wear tutus or flowing long dresses for women, and tights and simple shirts for men. The colors are often muted and pastel, and the costumes themselves can be quite elaborate, with intricate patterns and designs. The costumes for classical dance are meant to accentuate the movements of the dancers, rather than compete with them.

Classical Dance Music

Similar to costumes, classical dance music is also typically more traditional and structured than contemporary dance music. Classical dance music is often composed specifically for a particular piece or show, and it is played by an orchestra or other musical ensemble. This means that the music itself can be quite complex and multi-layered, with different instruments emphasizing different parts of the dance.

Contemporary Dance Costumes

Contemporary dance costumes, on the other hand, can be much more varied and less rigid than those worn in classical dance. It is not uncommon for contemporary dancers to perform in street clothes, costumes made from everyday objects, or even partial or full nudity. This is because contemporary dance often seeks to portray a specific emotion, message, or idea, rather than simply showcasing the movements of the dancers.

Contemporary Dance Music

The same is typically true for contemporary dance music. Rather than using traditional orchestral instruments, contemporary dancers often incorporate other types of music, such as pop, jazz, or electronic. This often means that the music itself is more modern, upbeat, and sometimes even dissonant, in order to match the mood and tone of the dance. Additionally, contemporary dancers sometimes create their own original music, rather than relying on pre-existing compositions.

The costumes and music used in classical and contemporary dance represent some of the key differences between the two styles. While classical dance aims to showcase the dancers’ movements with traditional costumes and orchestral music, contemporary dance often seeks to break the mold with unique and sometimes shocking costumes and modern music.


Choreography refers to the process of creating dance sequences and movements. Both classical and contemporary dance have different approaches towards choreography.

In classical dance, choreography is usually based on a structured and predetermined set of movements. There are specific steps and techniques that need to be executed in a certain way. Choreography also includes formations and patterns that the dancers need to follow. In classical ballet, for example, choreography often tells a story and is expressed through mime and dance movements.

On the other hand, contemporary dance choreography is often more improvisational and free-formed. It allows dancers to explore their own movement styles and express their own interpretations of the music. The choreography can be based on emotions, ideas or even a specific concept or message. Contemporary dance choreography also involves experimentation with space, time, and energy.

Here is a summary of the main differences between the two in terms of choreography:

Classical Dance Contemporary Dance
Predetermined set of movements More improvisational and free-formed
Specific steps and techniques Allows dancers to explore their own movement style
Formations and patterns to be followed Can be based on emotions, ideas or specific messages

Classical dance choreography is more structured and follows specific patterns and formations while contemporary dance choreography is more experimental and improvised, allowing for greater freedom of expression.

History of Contemporary Dance

History Of Contemporary Dance
When we think of dance, our minds often go to traditional styles such as ballet and ballroom. However, there exists a lesser-known but equally captivating form called contemporary dance. This modern style of dance may have only gained popularity in recent decades, but its roots go much deeper. The history of contemporary dance is a rich and colorful tapestry, woven together by the daring and innovative minds of creative thinkers throughout the years. Let’s explore the origins and evolution of this fascinating dance style.


The origins of classical and contemporary dance are vastly different, both in terms of time period and cultural background. A table can be used to highlight these differences:

Classical Dance Contemporary Dance
The roots of classical dance can be traced back to the European Renaissance period, particularly in France and Italy. Contemporary dance emerged as a genre in the mid-20th century, largely as a reaction to the traditions and constraints of classical ballet.
The earliest forms of classical dance, such as baroque dance and court ballet, were performed in royal courts and were often used to display power and control. Contemporary dance is a more inclusive art form, influenced by a range of different cultural traditions and often incorporating elements of improvisation and experimentation.
Classical dance was often associated with a rigid social hierarchy, with performers divided into distinct classes based on their training and experience. Contemporary dance is characterized by a greater emphasis on individual expression and creativity, and is often performed by non-traditional dancers who come from a range of backgrounds and training.

As can be seen from the table, the origins of classical and contemporary dance are quite distinct from one another. Classical dance emerged from a very specific cultural context, with a focus on hierarchy, power, and social norms. In contrast, contemporary dance is much more diverse and inclusive, drawing on a range of cultural influences and emphasizing individual expression and experimentation. Understanding these differences is critical to appreciating the unique qualities of each form of dance.


The evolution of classical dance can be traced back to the Renaissance period in Italy where the court dances were performed. These dances gradually evolved and became more sophisticated during the reign of King Louis XIV in France. He is considered the father of classical ballet as he established the first ballet school in the world called the Academy of Dance.

Over the years, ballet underwent several changes and transformations. In the 19th century, romantic ballet emerged and became popular. It was characterized by fluid movements and the use of pointe shoes which allowed dancers to perform intricate steps and movements.

In the 20th century, classical dance continued to evolve with the emergence of neoclassical ballet. This style was characterized by a departure from traditional choreography and the use of contemporary music. It was pioneered by choreographers like George Balanchine and is still performed in many ballet companies around the world.

On the other hand, the evolution of contemporary dance can be traced back to the early 20th century when modern dance emerged. It was a rejection of the rigid techniques and forms of classical ballet and it focused more on improvisation and self-expression.

Modern dance paved the way for contemporary dance which emerged in the mid-20th century. This dance form is characterized by a fusion of different dance styles including ballet, jazz, and modern dance. It also incorporates elements of acrobatics and gymnastics, making it more versatile and diverse.

Contemporary dance has continued to evolve in recent years with many choreographers experimenting with new techniques and styles. It has become one of the most popular dance forms in the world today, with many dancers opting to specialize in it instead of classical ballet.

Characteristics of Contemporary Dance

Characteristics Of Contemporary Dance
As we delve deeper into the dynamic world of contemporary dance, we begin to unravel the unique characteristics that make this genre so intriguing. Unlike classical dance, contemporary dance is not bound by rigid techniques and traditional choreography. Instead, it permits and values individual expression, allowing dancers to explore their emotions and movements in a more innovative and experimental way. Let’s take a closer look at some of the defining features of contemporary dance.


Classical dance and contemporary dance have a lot of differences when it comes to technique. Let’s start by discussing the technique of classical dance:

Aspect Classical Dance
Body Alignment In classical dance, maintaining a perfect body alignment is crucial. The dancer must keep their shoulders down, back straight, and hips forward, with no visible tension in the body. This creates an illusion of effortless dancing and elegance.
Posture Classical dancers always strive for good posture. They keep their chin up and shoulders back, with a straight spine.
Footwork Classical dance technique requires a lot of intricate footwork. The dancers must be able to turn on their toes, stand en pointe, and execute precise movements with their feet.
Turnout Turnout refers to the position of the legs when the feet are rotated outwards, away from the body. In classical dance, turnout is crucial, and dancers must work hard to achieve a perfect 180-degree turnout of the legs.
Partnering Classical dance often involves partnering, where a male dancer lifts and supports a female dancer. This requires a lot of strength and trust between the partners.

On the other hand, contemporary dance has a more fluid and free-form technique. Dancers often perform barefoot, which allows for greater freedom of movement. Unlike classical dance, contemporary dance does not prioritize turnout or perfect body alignment. Instead, contemporary dancers focus on expressing emotions and telling a story through movement. Their technique often involves using gravity and momentum to create flow and fluidity in their movements.

Classical dance and contemporary dance have very different approaches to technique, with classical dance emphasizing precision and perfection, and contemporary dance prioritizing creativity and expression.

Costumes and Music

Classical dance and contemporary dance differ greatly in their approach to costumes and music.

In classical dance, costumes are typically elaborate and follow traditional designs. The dancers wear tutus, leotards, and tights, with the male dancers wearing tights and ballet shoes. The fabrics used are often light and airy, with pastel colors dominating the palette. The music in classical dance is usually orchestral, with pieces composed by classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. The music is often melodic and structured, with a clear beat and rhythm that the dancers need to follow.

In contemporary dance, costumes are often simpler and designed to complement the choreography rather than stick to traditional designs. The dancers may wear anything from street clothes to costumes made from unconventional materials such as plastic or newspaper. The fabric used can be thick and heavy or light and flowing, depending on the choreographer’s vision. Similarly, the music used in contemporary dance can be anything from pop songs to experimental music, with electronic beats and sound effects often featuring prominently.

To summarize, while classical dance generally follows traditional designs in its costumes and music choices, contemporary dance opts for a more flexible and experimental approach to these elements.


Choreography is a crucial aspect of both classical and contemporary dance. In classical dance, choreography is typically based on pre-existing works, with modern-day dancers interpreting these works in their own unique style. To make their mark on the dance world, many classical dancers add their own personal flair to their performances, incorporating their emotions and movements into the choreography.

Contemporary dance choreography, on the other hand, often focuses on free-flowing movements and abstract ideas. Strongly emphasized in this style are the dancers’ individuality and uniqueness, as well as their creativity and ability to express themselves through movement. Choreography in contemporary dance also places a strong emphasis on the use of the entire body, with dancers often incorporating floor work and partnering techniques.

Both styles of dance feature intricate and challenging choreography. Classical dance typically features precise and symmetrical movements, with a focus on grace and fluidity. Conversely, contemporary dance thrives on asymmetry, unpredictability, and unconventional movements.

Some key characteristics of classical dance choreography include:

  • Precision and uniformity in movements
  • Strong emphasis on technique and form
  • Use of traditional steps and movements
  • Symmetry in movements and formations

Some key characteristics of contemporary dance choreography include:

  • Fluid, improvisational style
  • Emphasis on personal expression and creativity
  • Use of unconventional movements and techniques
  • Asymmetry and unpredictability in movements and formations

While both classical and contemporary dance share some similarities in their choreography, the differences between the two styles are clear. Classical dance focuses on traditional movements and symmetrical formations, while contemporary dance explores individuality and self-expression through fluid and unconventional movements.

Main Differences Between Classical and Contemporary Dance

As we delve into the world of dance, we start to notice the stark differences between Classical and Contemporary forms. While both possess their own unique charm and essence, it is the variations in their techniques, costumes, music, choreography, themes, and emotions that set them apart. Let us explore these differences in detail and find out what makes these dance forms unique and captivating in their own way.


Classical dance is characterized by a highly structured and disciplined technique, focusing on precise movements and poses that require great attention to detail and years of rigorous training. The technique is based on a set of established rules, passed down through generations of dancers, and requires a great deal of strength, flexibility, and control.

Classical Dance Technique:

Characteristic Description
Turnout Feet turned out from the hips to create a clean line and proper alignment of the legs and feet
Pointe Work Dancing on the tips of the toes using special pointe shoes to create the illusion of weightlessness and grace
Port de Bras Graceful movements and poses of the arms that accentuate the line and flow of the dance
Alignment Proper placement and alignment of the body, with emphasis on maintaining a straight spine and lengthened neck
Turns and Jumps Highly technical and intricate turns and jumps, including pirouettes, jetés, and grand allegro combinations

Contemporary dance, on the other hand, emphasizes creativity and individuality in its technique. There are no established rules, and dancers are encouraged to explore and experiment with different movements, styles, and techniques. The technique often involves fluidity and natural movements, and can incorporate elements of many different dance styles including ballet, modern, and jazz.

Contemporary Dance Technique:

Characteristic Description
Release Technique Emphasis on using the natural weight of the body and releasing tension to create fluid, effortless movements
Contractions and Expansions Using pulses and rhythm to create movements that contract and expand the body, emphasizing the spine and core muscles
Improvisation Encouraging dancers to explore and experiment with movement and choreography using their own personal style and creativity
Use of Weight Incorporating off-balance movements and use of weight to create dynamic and unpredictable movements
Contact Improvisation Partnering work that involves physical contact and communication between dancers, often incorporating lifts and falls

Classical dance technique is highly structured and precise, while contemporary dance technique is more fluid and creative. Both require years of training and dedication, but cater to different styles and preferences of dancers and audiences.

Costumes and Music

Classical dance and contemporary dance have distinct differences, which extend to their costumes and music. The following are the details of how both dance styles differ in terms of their costumes and music.

Classical Dance:

  • The costumes worn in classical dance are typically grand and ornate, featuring intricate designs and made of high-quality materials, such as silk and satin.
  • The female dancers’ costumes involve tutus and long, flowing dresses, complete with matching headpieces and pointe shoes.
  • The male dancers, on the other hand, wear tight-fitting costumes that highlight their physique and enable them to move freely.
  • The music used in classical dance is primarily classical, with famous composers such as Tchaikovsky and Beethoven being commonly used. Orchestra music accompanies a majority of classical dances, with instruments like the violin, cello, and piano being prominent.

Contemporary Dance:

  • The costumes worn in contemporary dance are more understated and simplistic, with the focus being on the movement and the dancers’ bodies.
  • Contemporary dancers typically wear tight-fitting clothing, such as leotards, leggings, and shorts, that emphasize their movements and allow for maximum freedom of movement.
  • The music used in contemporary dance varies widely, with forms like jazz and rock being frequently used alongside classical music. Composers often use electronic and synthesized sounds in their music to create a unique sound.

While the costumes in classical dance are grand and ornate, those in contemporary dance are simpler and utilitarian, allowing the focus to be on the dancer’s movements. The music in classical dance is primarily classical, while contemporary dance incorporates a variety of genres, from jazz to rock.


Choreography is the art of designing and creating dance routines. Classical dance choreography is highly structured and follows a set of established rules and forms. The choreography of classical dances, like ballet, is highly stylized and requires extensive training and practice to perfect the intricate movements.

On the other hand, contemporary dance choreography is usually more free-flowing and open to interpretation. The choreographer may not follow a fixed set of rules or forms, but may instead be inspired by the music or the emotions the dance is meant to convey.

In classical dance, the choreography is often derived from stories or myths, and is meant to be performed in a narrative fashion. The movements of the dancers are highly precise and require coordination and synchronization. Classical dancers must be able to convey the emotions and themes of the story through their movements, and must be able to communicate them to the audience.

Contemporary dance choreography, on the other hand, may be more abstract and improvised, and may not necessarily have a narrative component. The movements may range from fluid and graceful to sharp and angular, and may include a variety of different techniques and styles.

Regardless of the style of dance, choreography requires creativity and skill. The choreographer must be able to envision the movements and patterns, and must be able to communicate them clearly to the dancers. Strong communication skills and the ability to work collaboratively with the dancers are essential.

While classical dance choreography follows a set of established rules and forms, contemporary dance choreography is usually more free-flowing and open to interpretation. Both styles require creativity, skill, and collaboration to produce a compelling and engaging performance.

Themes and Emotions

Both classical and contemporary dance rely heavily on the emotions and themes conveyed through the movements. However, the themes and emotions depicted in each dance form are quite different from one another.

In classical dance, the themes and emotions revolve around romance, love, passion, and tragedy. Classical ballets are often adaptations of fairy tales or stories of love and loss. In classical dance, the focus is usually on telling a story that is predictable and familiar to the audience. The emotions conveyed through the dance movements are often grand and over-the-top, with exaggerated expressions and gestures.

In contemporary dance, however, the themes and emotions are more abstract and open to interpretation. Unlike classical dance, contemporary dance often portrays the harsh realities of life and addresses social and political issues. It is not uncommon to see contemporary dance pieces that address topics such as racism, sexism, or environmental issues. The emotions conveyed through contemporary dance are more complex and subtle, relying on nuanced gestures and facial expressions to convey the message.

To summarize, while classical dance focuses on re-telling familiar stories and emotions of love and tragedy, contemporary dance addresses more complex issues, and its themes and emotions are often abstract and open to interpretation, conveying a message that can be interpreted by each viewer in their own way.


After delving into the histories and characteristics of both classical and contemporary dance, it’s clear that these two styles have many differences, but also many similarities. While classical dance has a long and rich history, contemporary dance has emerged as a dynamic and ever-evolving style. Both styles require a high level of technical skill and physical ability, but their approaches to movement and choreography are very different.

Classical dance emphasizes a strict adherence to traditional technique, with dancers striving for perfect form and alignment. Costumes and music are often ornate and elaborate, and choreography is typically narrative-based, with a clear story being told through the movements. On the other hand, contemporary dance places less emphasis on technique and more on creative expression and individuality. The costumes and music used in contemporary dance are often minimalistic, and the choreography is more abstract and open to personal interpretation.

Despite these differences, both styles share a deep appreciation for the art of dance and the power of movement. It’s also worth noting that many dancers today incorporate elements of both classical and contemporary dance into their performances, creating unique and dynamic works that draw from both styles.

In conclusion, both classical and contemporary dance have their own unique strengths and characteristics. Whether you’re a fan of the traditional elegance of classical dance or the bold creativity of contemporary dance, there’s no denying the impact that these styles have had on the world of dance as a whole.

Preguntas frecuentes

What is the difference between classical and contemporary dance?

Classical dance typically adheres to traditional techniques and themes while contemporary dance is more experimental and free-form.

What are some examples of classical dances?

Ballet, waltz, and tango are all examples of classical dances.

What are some examples of contemporary dances?

Hip-hop, modern dance, and jazz are all examples of contemporary dances.

Do you need formal training to perform classical dance?

Yes, classical dance requires extensive training and discipline to master.

Can anyone learn contemporary dance?

Yes, anyone can learn and perform contemporary dance regardless of their age or experience.

What type of music is used in classical dance?

Classical dance is often accompanied by classical music, such as compositions by Tchaikovsky or Mozart.

What type of music is used in contemporary dance?

Contemporary dance can be performed to a wide range of music genres, from pop to electronic to experimental.

What are the main differences in technique between classical and contemporary dance?

Classical dance emphasizes technical precision and controlled movements while contemporary dance focuses on fluidity and improvisation.

Do classical and contemporary dancers wear different costumes?

Yes, classical dancers typically wear tutus, leotards, and tights while contemporary dancers may wear looser, more casual clothing.

What emotions do classical and contemporary dance aim to evoke?

Classical dance often aims to evoke elegance, grace, and beauty while contemporary dance explores a wider range of emotions and themes, from political to personal.


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