On Dancing in the Now

A Text from Sasha Amaya

Contemporary dance is defiance
It is a move away from ballet
It is a dance which takes into account a diversity of forms, but also, often, exploits them
Contemporary dance is a coming together of bodies
It is a quiz and a test
Contemporary dance is a thought exercise, an intellectual defence, a test of patience
It is a connection to emotion
The reality of the embodiment of things that we only ever read about, hear about, think about
Fantasize about
But enacted in front of us, with us, together
Contemporary dance is a disguise
It is a cultural product
It is a trap
It is a white floor
Displaying a brown body
Called art
On tour
It is a battle
Contemporary dance is a premise
Something unfinished
Something fuzzy
Contempory dance is, after all, a poem
Relying on and eluding analysis
Exploding imaginations
Contemporary dance is a surprise
A new dramaturgical arc
Something confusing
Something of beauty
Sometimes very boring
Contemporary dance is timing

Above are listed a few of the thoughts I first sketched when I was asked what the term ‘’contemporary dance’’ connotes. The term has the feel of the universal, encompassing everything in the now. Is not what is in the now the same as the contemporary? But the term, when partnered with ‘dance’, is deceptive. Unpacking its meaning, my mind skips through an oft-cited uni-directional arc of western dance history: ballet –> modern –> contemporary dance. This is only one possible meaning of contemporary dance, of course, but as the understanding of this term as linked to this lineage is so dominant, it funnels my initial responses. Indeed, contemporary dance, presented as such, does appear as a movement of research, defiance, renovation, and experimentation. But when we really think about the terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘dance’, this hegemonic structure is revealed as only one thin trail of the dance that is happening in our contemporary moment. So if that is only a thin slice of its possible scope, then what indeed is contemporary dance?

Johannes Odenthal, whose essay precedes mine in this series, writes that a post-colonial reading of this lineage is helpful, as it enables us to frame this pedigree not as a universal but rather, more honestly, as a ‘project of the west’ (Odenthal 2024). Further, he argues, in doing so, modernism’s stigmatization and othering of dance from the global south becomes obsolete through the capacity of contemporary dance to acknowledge simultaneities (Glissant in Odenthal 2024). As such, Odenthal suggests, contemporary dance it ‘not a technique, an aesthetic’ but rather a ‘diversity’ in itself (Odenthal 2024).


But has contemporary dance really transcended to become a ‘diversity in itself’? I agree with Odenthal in the respect that the dance we tend to refer to as contemporary dance has broadened, or, at least, is more difficult to define (not quite the two same things, but oft conflated), but I wonder to what extent this diversity exists. There has, most definitely, been an expansion of the movement vocabulary and superficial aesthetics of what might be included in contemporary dance. ‘’Other’’ dance traditions have found themselves welcomed on the art stages of Europe – generally the standard for whether something succeeds in its contemporaneity or not for at the time of writing the finances and infrastructures for art in western and northern Europe are still larger than elsewhere – including other forms of movement, other rhythms, other languages, other costumes, other hair, other/ed faces. However, the scene still demands a particular framing of these new ‘’diversities’’. Aesthetically, we often see something ‘cultural’ on the cleanest of stages or in a white box gallery: a brown body on a white stage. And despite the more ‘diverse’ content on view, those who make the decisions – curators, juries, critics – are still much less diverse. The content changes, but those who determine the content do not.

Yet even more powerful than the aesthetic framing of works – and one of our most genuine challenges – is the dramaturgical. If a piece exhibits vivid colours, novel dance moves, new bodies, it can be framed as the diversity of contemporary dance. But if a piece truly charts a different arc in its energy, its narration, its relation to audience satisfaction, or does not engage with certain production values, it is a real challenge to western audiences. Often what is lacking are the tools to see, hear, sense, and make sense of real difference. How are we able to determine if something is of value or not, is worth further support or not, should be on tour or not, when we don’t really have the capacities to see, listen, feel, or speak about it?

Indeed, a shared sense of knowledge is important to audiences of contemporary dance, but how much must we be in the know to appreciate something? It can be too easy to get tangled up in a taste for references or stylistic histrionics. A European ‘contemporary dance’ public seems to need to know that we, choreographer and performers, are in on the joke, or are on the right political side, or have been duly updated, viz. are similarly educated and thus the same in a quite fundamental way, and are not perpetuating some nonsense from ‘the past’. It is an inglorious colonial condescension, but also whiffs of genuine anxiety, a fear of the earnest, of standing out, of being identified as ‘other’ oneself. If uncertain, it’s safer to be cynical. Safer to cast doubt.

In my own work thus far, I have been interested in creating, and sharing, an earnest relationship to my material, which, tending to be sourced from unfashionable themes – baroque dance, beautiful white men, rhizomatic self-portraiture — has also engendered a particular engagement with risk.

Staying with this material, rather than distancing myself from it to join the audience, is often both confusing and decidedly unattractive in the European context. Am I in on the joke? Or do I love the baroque!? It is hard for the audience to know sometimes, and that makes them uncomfortable. But, within my own practice, doing so enables two things to open: a relationship to my material that enables a distinct choreography, and, secondly, the visibility of the dynamics between audience and artist.

In his essay ‘The Local Prejudice of Contemporary Dance’ Fabián Barba writes about the colonization of contemporaneity. The ‘contemporary’ should, in its most denotive sense, refer to the present. As such, as Barba also points out, the contemporary should really point to any dance that is happening now. And yet this is far from the case. We do not usually include breaking, cumbia, or line dancing as contemporary dance practices – though they are danced in our present moment (Barba 2016:52, examples my own).

Rather, Barba argues, contemporary dance has a connotative labelling function, that does not really mean the contemporary, but rather points to the now of a singular, European-led conception of the present (Barba 2016:50, also after Dipesh Chakrabarty). For example, Barba cites a work created in Colombia that European cultural workers deemed ‘’looked 80s’’ (Barba 2016:49) despite its contemporaneity, viz. despite it equally happening in the now. This example points to the insulting and exclusive assumption that contemporaneity is the domain of Euro-centric tastemakers, an assumption bellied by the term’s superficial openness. Yet as this remains our main understanding of the contemporary, curators and audiences witnessing works that play by (or with) the rules of a different game often question whether a work is a bit old fashioned or not very good. Instead, it would behoove us to wonder more about our own positionality and learn to understand that multiple contemporaneities can exist, sometimes placing the cosmology of a work outside our own current knowledge. While the conversation and what we see on stage has developed enormously in the nearly ten years since Barba wrote, the core of Barba’s inquiry — ‘Why is it difficult to recognize two simultaneous dance scenes as contemporary to each other?’ (Barba 2016:49) – remains relevant. Will it be harder to judge pieces? To know who is worth of funding? Will we be uncomfortable as outsiders who don’t always understand what we are seeing? Yes, but doing so will continue to broaden our scope of understanding of what dance in the now can be, where the big rules of performance – choreography, dramaturgy, notions of authenticity, relation to an audience – are being played out in a beautiful variety of different games.


While recognition of multiple contemporaneities might be one of the hardest conceptual paradigms to shift, the problem of the depth and richness of contemporary dance creation also exists on a very material basis which must be mentioned. For to split the problem between the west and non-west, the global north and global south is too simple for our contemporary moment. As Moshtari Hilal and Sinthujan Varatharajah point out in their book Englisch in Berlin, acceptance, validation, and commodification is a complex process which often also supports global elites as recent arrivals while disenfranchising second or third generation Europeans with a migration background. Within the art scene, they suggest that global elites who attend international art schools are educated in a way more similar with that of curators, juries, and the spectating public, while retaining an ostensible ‘otherness’ that makes them particularly commodifiable within the contemporary art market (Hilal and Varatharajah 2022:95-96). The flip side of this, Hilal and Varatharajah argue, is that it is

Europeans with a migrant history, often racialized and who have needed to fit into the German system, who are no longer seen as foreign enough yet who are neither in possession of the privileges of the racialized-as-white middle class in Germany (Hilal and Varatharajah 2022:85-97, 113). The fact is that many, though not all, immigrants growing up in the northern hemisphere do so out of necessity, facing years of racism and prejudice, and the grief that accompanies so many with complex identities. To survive we must try to fit in, but, once we do, we are no longer authentic or connected — often to those whom we leave behind in our home countries, as well as those in the contemporary scene who cherry-pick their diversity.

The narrowness of what falls under contemporary dance today is further revealed when we consider socio-economic class markers, which affect those of us who are both racialized-as-other and non- raciliazed in the German scene. The scene’s outrageously precarious funding model relies on, in the best-case scenario, working from one project to the next, with long wait times for answers, and short turn-around times for creation. Worst case scenario, nothing at all. Who can do that, year in and year out? Financially and psychologically? Those of us with support: with savings, with a family we can rely on, with a healthy housing situation. And in dance, where the practice of our craft is not only possible at home with a computer, but necessitates being in a studio, generally with other persons, who also need to get paid, this model erodes foundational components of our craft’s quality like daily training, studio time, and collaboration with others. And, of course, those few of us with the means to battle this are able to train more, research more, collaborate more. But the result for contemporary dance as an art form, is persons in similar situations making (often similar) things.

Further diminishments to variety and multiple contemporaneities in contemporary dance are also curtailed by the social. Curation is an important and enriching interlocutor in the artistic ecosystem, but the required support from a curator to even apply for funding in the German can be yet another gateway, particularly for artists who are not comfortable with or able to do the fundamental networking required, be that out of differences in culture, dis/ability, neurodiversity, or other marginalisations. Even those of us who have been formed, or have formed ourselves, into the right shapes for curatorial and public consumption, exist in a fickle world. Tastes change and change fast. We are encouraged to experiment, but it is hard to fail and get further funding, especially if you are a woman*, especially if you are brown or black. Geographic regions and thematics come in and out of fashion, and artists who have been able to move from the underpaid frenzy of the emerging years through the squeeze of the mid-career artist doomland are few and far between, if still our guiding lights.

Why does this matter? There is an argument for justice, for fairness, for more equality, sure, but it equally affects art, its quality, and its scope. Care is politically and artistically important. Because the possibilities that we set up for how we work as a system determine the condition of our bodies, the weight of power dynamics between makers and gatekeepers, our relationship to risk and failure, and the culture of inquiry within our community and with the public.


What do we mean when we say contemporary dance? It is not the all-encompassing term that it might seem at first glance. There are barriers to what contemporary dance can be, both due to the circumstances of its production and who is included and excluded, but also to our very conceptualization of the ‘contemporary’ and the western tradition of colonizing the contemporary to depict a singularity, rather than multiplicity, of nowness.

Yet beyond these problematics, there are indeed things that ‘contemporary dance’ – describing the contemporary dance scene in its narrower senses, but equally, if not more, describing other works of dance happening in the now— share. I list here five attributes that suggest a broader, but still rigorous understanding of what we might include when we speak of the specialness of dance now.

These five attributes are: risk; resistance to material capitalism; the bodymemory recollected; the provision of shared, real-time, collective experiences; and community.

Contemporary dance is a risk. We are creating pieces that can fail in real time. We are bringing together that which is beyond, between, before, and after words. We are bringing things in and out of rhythm, but not relying on it to carry us through. We are merging ideas about the past and future. We are bringing together teams and trusting the parts will make a whole. Yet the tech can malfunction, our presence can falter, the audience can sit in expectation. Each night is an experiment, an offering of tingling layers, a spell brought forth which creates a vortex or whispers itself away. Contemporary dance, as such, is a risk: something vulnerable, tender, and ephemeral offered to an environment that is alternately generous, defensive, unready, collaborative, or sweet.

Contemporary dance is also resistance against material capitalist forces within and without the dance world. It is the manifestation and remanifestion, over and over again, that our time, our jobs, our lives can be spent meaningfully creating things that leave no material trace. It is difficult to commodify. It fades. Its impact is diffuse and, while evidently there, impossible to quantify. And to create it takes resources of time, space, materiality – real things that cost real money but don’t promise a return on investment. As such, it is an activity and a profession which resists the common norms of professionalization, at times for the worse, but very often for the better, resists commodification, and resists material capitalism.

Contemporary dance is the provision of shared, real-time, collective experience. It is a bridge, or the blur, between apparent actor and observer, but however one parses it, it is a collective experience of the experimental. It is a public conversation. It is a sensing of things skin to skin with strangers. It is collective memory creation. And in a moment when our realities are so filtered through the algorithmic and the political, with an array of uncanny replicas parading before us, this coming together to experience something unknown, unpredictable, and unexpected is an astonishing instance of the richness of communal experience.

Contemporary dance – though not only contemporary dance — is also a reminder of other knowledges, including those deep within us. While the contemporary art scene can often extract from and exploit othered knowledges, there is something fundamentally interconnected about the dancing body and knowledge that it brings, both within time — bringing together the parts we normally compartamentalize in the west as mind, spirit, and body, for the dancing body is all of these things all at once all the time – and through time. It is the bodymemory recollected. It is a body that reverberates with the traditions of our past, sometimes in recognition of this and sometimes not. Other times this knowing simply burns itself forth through our limbs, our skin, our breath, the astonishing totality and vivacity of all of those before us through those of us dancing now. It is a way of thinking about, valuing, and honouring the entire body: the human body, the animal body, the body politic, the earth body, the cosmic body.

And finally, (contemporary) dance is social community. It is seeing the same people at the same shows. It is following choreographers and booking your tickets on a specific night to listen to the after talk. It is the group of people you greet every morning at professional training, or the evening class where an eclectic friendship group develops. It is the feeling of elation taking a workshop with someone you admire, or starting to see the same people attend your work, the unfamiliar become familiar, the public not as concept but as encounter, conversation, and support. It is, as such, recognized faces, friendly hellos, coffee after training, drinks after the show, that buzz of a smile heading home after the dance.