Classical Ballet vs Contemporary Ballet

There are a lot of similarities and differences in the world of dance, with cross-overs and borrowed steps, but today we wanted to present to you all differences and similarities between classical ballet vs contemporary ballet. You more than likely have your favourite one to dance and you more than likely favour one over the other, but how exactly do they intertwine and what is it that makes contemporary dance different from ballet. Let’s delve further into the world of ballet.

Dance, as a whole, is one of the most expressive and aesthetically pleasing forms of modern-day art. It expresses love, anger, sorrow and joy to name a few. It’s one of the most beautiful forms of art that connects with its audience and consumes its audiences. Dance not only expresses how you feel but also tells an all-important story. Ballet has intricately played its part in culture and society over the course of its time. Two disciplines though, that intertwine and yet vary so greatly is that of classical ballet and contemporary ballet.

Classical ballet and contemporary ballet are both unique in their core structures. Whilst they share the same emitting of emotion, there are countless differences which to an untrained dancer eye might not be so obvious. Classical ballet oozes fluid, graceful movements and emphasises the longest lines possible with strict adherence to form and technique. Whereas with contemporary dance, there is a great deal amount of freedom, which we’ll look into a little later.


You may be wondering how exactly did ballet start? For those that don’t know classical ballet is the most formal of the three ballet styles and is one that was born way back in the 1500’s. Following a set of rules and complete strictness, it is one that is known for its particular exactness of technique, desire for long lines, pointe work and insane turn outs. It’s considered one of the most graceful forms of dance.

Ballet started when the French king Henri II married Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533, the joining of the Italian and the French is what first blossomed an ever-loving art form. At the time, the dance works were lengthy and like all theatre at the time, only men could perform. Men would play the roles of the women. There was a high emphasis on lavish costumes, theatrical scenery and venetian masks.

Classical ballet has always been very much structured to the audience. There are certain key ingredients that must be sprinkled to ensure that it classifies as a classical ballet, they are as follows:

Classical ballet must tell a story

Some of the most famous ballet works include Cinderella, Coppélia, Don Quixote, Giselle, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty. All of them, or at least most of them, are all well-known adored fairy tales that are instilled into our minds from a young age. Often in these tales it involves a boy and girl plot with a problem that gets resolved by the end. Usually, good prevails evil.

Classical ballet must have costumes and scenery

The story of a classical ballet is always supported by beautiful music which goes with the story, expensive and extravagant costumes and elaborate scenery. Female dancers in a classical ballet must wear pointe shoes and tutus.

Classical ballet must have a ‘folk’ or ‘character’ dance

Some of the most sought-after roles for a character dance are from Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and Swan Lake.

Before the introduction of the debate between classical ballet vs contemporary ballet was the birth of modern dance. Created in the early 20th century, it was a dance form that emerged as an expression of rebelling and rejecting classical ballet. Notably, Isadora Duncan, the pioneer of modern dance thought that classical ballet was ugly. She was known for her free-flowing costumes, bare feet and loose hair. Her dance movements were inspired by classical Greek art and nature. They were poetic performances with elements of emotion, she loved to incorporate natural movements into her works like running, jumping and leaping. It was a true expression of freedom.

However, Martha Graham is noticed as the pioneer of modern dance when she became a dancer at the Denishawn School in 1916. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn liberated dance from the constraints that classical ballet had set rules for. They incorporated yoga, ballroom and natural movements into their works. Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce the classical ballet vs contemporary ballet battle through the introduction of the unmistakeable differences between classical and contemporary ballet.

We have defined classical ballet and modern dance and we have outlined what it takes to officially be a classical ballet, but what exactly is contemporary ballet and why is it becoming so popular? Contemporary ballet was created in around the 1980’s with the combination of modern dance and classical ballet. For many, the idea of a classical ballet was seen as outdated. No longer did some women want to be portrayed as fragile and needing saving, instead, they wanted to demonstrate sheer power and show that they can save themselves. Freedom. Fluidity. Improvisation. This is what defines contemporary ballet.

Another element of the classical ballet vs contemporary ballet that scores a point for contemporary that has been welcomed into the world of dance is the inclusion of the male dancers. In the past, the female ballerinas took centre stage. It was all about their extravagant costumes, their beautiful leaps and the male role was there to make them look good. However, with contemporary, males now have huge roles. There is a place for them to take centre stage and rightly so. They are able to demonstrate their skills and exquisite dancing without being hidden in the shadow of a tutu and scenery.

Following on from that, contemporary dance is all about an entire aesthetic. Usually, the costume is stripped down and back to basics. The lighting and costumes are there to compliment the shapes or mood that the dancing is portraying. It’s there to compliment, not to draw attention but add that sense of atmosphere.

The history of contemporary ballet is an interesting one. A few questions on a lot of people’s lips is who created contemporary ballet? Where did it come from? How did contemporary ballet start? Subsequently, we’re here to help and shed some light on the matter.

Who created contemporary ballet?

Well, that would be George Balanchine. George Balanchine is often renowned as the first innovator of contemporary ballet. George Balanchine incorporated flexed hands and occasionally flexed feet into his dance works, which is now known as neoclassical ballet. The neoclassical ballet style that he created lies on the border between classical ballet and today’s contemporary ballet. He also incorporated non-traditional costumes.

One dancer in particular who trained with Balanchine was Mikhail Baryshinkov, who also worked with a variety of modern choreographers. One in particular was Twyla Tharp. Notably, she commissioned a piece called “In The Upper Room”. It was in this performance that it was considered innovative in the world of contemporary ballet. She incorporated the modern movements combined with pointe shoes and classically-trained ballet dancers. Here is where Contemporary Ballet was really born. You could say contemporary ballet was born in 1986 thanks to the contributions from Balanchine and the merging from Tharp.

Following on from this, Twyla also worked alongside The Joffrey Ballet. Here they incorporated pop music and a sprinkle of modern attitudes alongside ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform contemporary pieces long after the introduction from Twyla. It is evident that contemporary ballet is one that is becoming more and more popular for a number of reasons.

In present day, there are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers which you may know of already. Some of the most well-known ones are Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, Nacho Duato, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Furthermore, there are a lot of traditionally classical companies, like the Paris Opera Ballet, who do perform contemporary dance pieces on a regular basis.

The classical ballet vs contemporary ballet debate is one that will continue for years to come, there are dancers that favour contemporary and there are dancers that favour classical. It’s all about finding what’s right for you. No matter which style you pick, Zarely has the perfect rehearsal clothes waiting to support you every step of the way.


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