Ballet Class Vs Modern Class – Which Is More Difficult…

… for the very beginner (like, starting from zero), recreational adult dancer/dance student?

This is a question that’s been going through my mind quite a bit recently.  And, since when I signed up for modern dance class I did a lot of internet searching and didn’t find too much info on the subject (to be fair, my internet search skills are sadly underdeveloped. Every cool thing I’ve ever found is because I stumbled across it!), I decided to add on my 2 cents.

My first introduction to modern dance was through one of the performances at my school, back when I was a complete ballet newbie.  At the time, I didn’t know much about modern – or ballet, for that matter – and while I realized ballet’s difficulty through all the struggles that I was facing, modern to me looked just plain hard!  How do they go from flying in the air to throwing themselves on the ground?! I wondered. All that floorwork, rolls, the occassional flip! Just watching it made my back ache…

Anyway, since I had my hands – and feet – full with ballet, I focused exclusively on ballet for the first 2 1/2 years or so. But then, a little over a month ago, I began my first session of modern dance.  While the first few weeks of lessons were mostly focused on stretching, finding our body’s center and alignment, and some conditioning (I’ve written a bit about my modern classes here in the blog), in the last couple of weeks I’ve seen modern class get increasingly intense. And we’re barely about a third into the session…

So, what exactly do I mean by “more intense”? Well, we started doing footwork, similar to what I’ve done in ballet. Stretching the foot through a forced arch position (demi-point, pushing the arch up while keeping the toes on the floor), pushing it off the floor into a full point a few inches off the ground, at different tempos – first slowly to help us maintain our balance, then quickly.  Releves in parallel, first and second, with balancing.

Then class really picked up.  Tendus in all directions, beginning with multiple times in each direction and progressing to one in each direction en croix, at different tempos. Degages, also following the same pattern. Plies in both first and second position, as well as parallel (6th), with coordinating arms. This move that resembles a forward bend, but with a completely flat back (Modern Teacher calls them “flatbacks”). Grand plies in first and second. The arch stretch in which you plie then bring up your arches so that you’re on releve while plie-ing. The reverse of it, going up in releve and then plie-ing from there. Even longer balances in releve. Grand battements. Sautes. And did I mention that all of this is done without a barre?!

In other words, we’re doing the same kinds of steps that are done in a beginner ballet class, but without the support (both physical and psychological, LOL) of a barre! The “center” portion of class that so many beginners dread is basically the whole class (except for the conditioning portion of class – if you’re planning on starting modern for the first time I strongly suggest you make friends with push ups and sit ups if you haven’t already).

Then there’s going across the floor. We do walks at all tempos, chasses,  and jumps, sometimes coordinating the movements with our upper body. While it’s not ballet, in my opinion it’s no easy task for a very beginner dancer. We’ve also started working on a combination, which ties together many of the steps and concepts we have been working on over the past month. Since the movements don’t all have names (at least as far as I know), it’s hard for me to describe it. I will say that at some point we go from being bent over in a plie to launching ourselves forward onto our arms – I guess that’s what all the push ups were for. I’ll also say that if it wasn’t for all the strengthening that I’ve done because of ballet I would be having a very hard time in this class.

It was also in modern dance class that I discovered that it’s better (for me) to go across the floor in one of the first groups, by the way. If you go in the last group you have to go across the floor while everyone that already went is there on the opposite side staring at you. Awkward…

So, would I consider, as a beginner-beginner, modern class to be more difficult than ballet? YES!!! Looking around the room, it’s almost obvious who has had previous dance training and who hasn’t.  Since my classmates for the most part are pretty young (18 to early 20’s, I’d guess) and in shape, they are doing an excellent job keeping up. I’m keeping up as well, but I know it’s only because of all the ballet and pilates I’ve been doing. During those very early days of dance training, I desperately needed the barre to help me balance in plies, tendus, releves, etc. The second we stepped out to center it was a non-stop struggle to hold my balance and do anything!  However, you do get to be barefoot, and I remember in those early days how I though I felt more stable barefoot than in my ballet slippers. So that’s a small consolation.

In no way am I trying to discourage anyone from doing modern dance, or even starting off their adult dance hobby doing modern dance (not that my opinion is that important or anything).  But in my experience it’s a better idea to start off with ballet – the foundation of dance – and go from there. And, above all, stay safe and have fun 🙂

3 thoughts on “Ballet Class Vs Modern Class – Which Is More Difficult…

  1. asher

    Yay, modern dance! I can’t wait to read more about your experiences. I’m still sitting on the fence about taking up a modern class (solely because it would mean — GASP! — cheating on my studio :D).

    I think I must agree, here — it’s also been my experience that serious modern classes tend to be very physically demanding from the start, and I also think that it’s a good idea to start with ballet first, unless that’s going to keep you from dancing at all (in which case, definitely start with whatever gets you into class).

    I feel like ballet, thanks to its traditions, builds dancers from the small movements outwards, whereas modern dance tends to just throw you right in with the sharks (another example, I guess, of “build it ’til you’ve killed it vs. fake it ’til you make it”?).

    Your modern classes sound a lot like the ones I took as an arts magnet student in high school — every class was two hours long and started with boot-camp calibre calisthenics, basically activating every possible skeletal muscle fiber, which we’d then use in subsequent movements in class, in combinations, and in improv. Fun, but exhausting 😀 Our teacher stood about five-foot-nothing, weighed maybe 90 pounds, could have roundly kicked all our butts in terms of pure fitness, and we were all flat-out terrified of her (but I also adored her, and she was an awesome teacher).

    For what it’s worth, I was grateful every single day that I came in with a background in ballet and gymnastics for the reasons you mention — balance, strength, and coordination. In a way, it’s very much like training horses — the best trainers in the world recommend dressage training for essentially any riding horse (even a future cow pony), regardless of what you’re ultimately going to do with it, because dressage develops balance, collection, impulsion, cadence, and all that stuff and also teaches the horse how to use its own body most effectively. Ballet does the same thing for humans, and I think it makes getting into modern dance much easier!

    1. kit Post author

      Oh my gosh, yes, your comment is so accurate on so many points! The description you gave of a modern class is spot-on, except our teacher is on the tall side, but still about 95% muscle! And I am so extremely grateful that I’ve had all this ballet. If I hadn’t, I know it would have definitely been worse than when I first stated ballet – the balancing, the coordination, the body awareness. It makes sense to use horse training methods for training humans.
      I’ve also noticed that there’s something to the thought that many people would not start dancing if they had to start with ballet. There is such a variation as far as body size and shape in beginning modern class that it actually feels quite welcoming (compared to beginning ballet at the same school, all the times I’ve taken it). It’s one of the things I love the most about it actually, and I feel way more comfortable in my body there than in ballet class.I don’t know, I keep obsessing about it, like how is that supposed to work? I mean, on the one hand, if one takes ballet first it prepares them physically for modern, but on the other hand ballet’s seen as intimidating/ seemingly exclusive, so then it discourages the person from dancing at all. (But if one goes right into modern, it may be too physically challnging for the body – arrgh!) At times like these I’m so grateful that I was so ignorant of the “ballet culture” regarding body shape when I first started. That would have definitely kept me out of the studio.

      1. asher

        That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about modern as well — even the professional companies offer a much more varied array of body types, and they do some amazing things with them! I think you sum up one of the difficulties for would-be dancers vey precisely,here. It’s very much a sticky wicket.

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