Elementary Differences Between Modern and Lyrical Dance

By Mary Wendt

Since I began drill/dance team in the late 1970’s, dance categories have become more diverse but less defined. One of the newer subdivisions in competitions is the modern category. The lay person may not detect the subtle differences between the lyrical and modern dance form. However, one of our responsibilities as educators is to identify, as simply as possible, the ways to differentiate between modern and lyrical expression.

Modern is not really “modern” at all; in fact, it has been around since the turn of the century. Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham are two of the most famous pioneers in this revealing art form. Natural movement is one of the basis for the modern choreographer. Modern is usually bound by a given expressed motif which could be a repeated gesture, breath, or movement. Key elements in identifying this type of dance include release, fall, and suspension of movement. A release allows the body to fall naturally without controlling the drop of the weight. Reacting to the recovery is called the fall and suspension of modern dance. Letting the fall continue, the dancer makes full use of weight and gravity. Quite often, body parts serve as the impetus of an expression, i.e.: a wrist can begin the movement of the arm, which leads to the torso stirring, etc. Many of the lines are abstract in nature, not symmetrical or in a perfect form. The central axis is the basis for most movement being centered or deep within the dancer’s body but dancers are free to deviate from this axis.

Lyrical dance is the fusion of ballet and jazz technique. Expression from the inner emotion is a primary factor in choreographing and interpreting this art form. A key element in looking at a lyrical piece is seeing the movements done in a flowing or continuos pattern. Instead of individual phrases, it reads more like a paragraph to use a story analogy. Lyrical dance interprets music or words, showing the audience the emotion of the particular piece. The lines are traditional in nature with a technique base that determines the correct placement of the body angles. The motion is on a central axis and is usually centered.

As in all dance forms, these two styles may overlap. A good indicator of which category to enter, lyrical or modern, should be determined by which area 75% or more of the dance can best be slotted. A synopsis of key elements is included.

Modern: Natural movement allowing a dancer to use creative lines and body weight to produce distinctive ways of moving.

1. Abstract lines

2. Movement centered around a central axis

3. Body parts may serve as impetus of movement

4. Fall and release movement and suspension

Lyrical: Fusion of ballet and jazz technique bound by the expression of the dancer’s inner emotion.

1. Traditional lines

2. Constant centered motion on central axis

3. Interprets music or lyrics

4. Flows to connect music

Across the floor series:

Modern runs should embody:

1. Connecting with gravity

2. Pelvis being pushed by sacrum

3. Plie positioning

4. Arms being placed in a neutral (relaxed) position

Lyrical runs should embody:

1. Leading with toes

2. Turning out

3. Connecting to the floor with a light quality

Any attempt to adequately distinguish between lyrical and modern will be necessarily oversimplified. However, the concepts discussed above should improve your ability to create and/or classify a routine as lyrical or modern. As a fun exercise, share this information with your students and have them enjoy defining these areas while further reviewing dance history. Create shapes, weight share, and dance to poetry as further exercises in expression to develop their knowledge of these two categories.

Mary Wendt
Vice President of Marching Auxiliaries
Masters and Magna Cum Laude graduate from Texas Christian University
Former Assistant Director of the TCU Showgirls