7 Tips on How to Watch Contemporary Dance 

Written by: Brittany Mulder 

July 12, 2017

Contemporary dance
After my parents would watch me perform at my year end recitals growing up, their response would always be along the lines of “beautiful”, “so fun to watch” or, the most common response, “you were the best one” (of course, that was their VERY biased opinion, which I understood).  It wasn’t until I began studying dance in university that their responses to my performances changed, quite drastically.

I was in my first year at the University of Calgary and I made the audition for the first show of the year - You could say I was pretty proud of myself. After weeks and weeks of rehearsals, my parents came down for the concert. After the show I ask them, enthusiastically, “So… what did you think?”. They both hesitantly respond with puzzled looks on their faces. “... Good job?”. Trying to recover from their not so great response they say, “well like, you did great, but… we just didn’t understand what it was about”.  Naturally, my equally awkward reply: “…thanks”.  Thinking back now, of course, they didn’t understand what the piece was about. It was an abstract work that was full of movement that they had never seen me perform before.

Surprisingly, even after that first performance, my parents still supported my decision to continue studying dance. They even came back to watch my next performance a couple of months later. (They must really love me.) After they watched a few more of my performances, they started to realize that they weren’t going to understand the meaning of any of the dances and they started to perfect their response to the ‘what did you think’ question. After each performance, their puzzled looks were a little less puzzled looking. In all fairness, I think any parent, after watching 10 plus years of competitive dancing, would be a little thrown off after watching their first professional contemporary dance work.  

So for those of you that have yet to experience, or appreciate a contemporary dance work, this for you. I am no expert, but I think that my parents would have been a little more prepared for the experience had I written this for them a few years back.  
1. Sit back, and relax.

The best part of being an audience member is that all you have to do, is buy your ticket, show up on time, watch the show, and then, should you feel so inclined, you can clap at the end of the show. If you really want to go above and beyond as an audience member, you could even mentally prepare yourself before you watch the performance by understanding that what you are about to watch is probably going to be like nothing you’ve seen before.  Get rid of all expectations, sit back and relax.
2.Read the Description
Read the description of the piece in the brochure. It may contain some helpful hints as to what the choreographer was trying to portray. However, artists like to be mysterious so there may be some instances where the description won’t help you understand the purpose of the piece. In that case, you are on your own to interpret the performance in your own way.
  3. Notice patterns or repetition

If you notice certain patterns in the movement or repetition of one specific movement, notice it. It could be that the choreographer wants to use that particular phrase or movement to say something. On the other hand, there may be no particular reason for the movement repetition but it’s great that you noticed.     
4. And how does that make you feel?

While you are watching the performance, notice how it is making you feel. Are you sad? Happy? Angry? Uncomfortable? Nervous? Confused? You can try to understand why you are feeling this way by noticing the movement, the music, the posture of the dancers, the speed of the dancer’s movement or the fluidity of the motion. Or on the other hand, you can choose to just embrace the feelings and just continue watching.   
5. I must be numb.

If you don’t feel anything, you’re doing it wrong. JUST KIDDING! You might not feel anything, that’s okay too. Sometimes, choreographers' work is just an exploration of movement that does not convey emotion in any way. So if you aren’t feeling anything, you are not numb. Chances are that the choreographer may not have intended the audience to feel anything.
6. I don’t get it   

You don’t have to ‘get it’. Not all dances have a literal meaning or concise narrative. In fact, even if you think you ‘get it’ the person next to you may have a totally different interpretation of the performance.  There is no right or wrong interpretation of the art that you just watched.
7. It’s like a painting

When you go to an art gallery, do you expect to like everything you see? Do you expect to understand what each painting means? Do you always know what the artist was trying to say through their form of expression?  Not always. But do you think that the artist had a purpose or an intention to what they created? Absolutely. Dance is like a painting; but rather, than using a paint brush, we just use our bodies instead. And while a painting could live forever, our dance is only temporary so embrace it while it lives.
Thanks for reading and I hope this article helps you when viewing your next contemporary dance performance!