The history of modern dance is shorter than other dance histories; modern is a rebellion against ballet, against tradition. As modern dance began, it was all about freedom, expression and spirit.
Isadora Duncan was the first to bring modern dance to general audiences. She searched for her movements in nature, and modern dance is consequently often thought of as silly little girls imitating flowers. Duncan choreographed all of her performances very carefully, and contributed much to modern dance.
Duncan expanded the kinds of movements that could be used in dance, dancing with her whole body. She re-invented dance costuming, abandoning traditional stiff corsets and shoes, she went barefoot with her hair unbound.
Another main force in pioneering modern dance was Ruth St. Denis, who used oriental themes for her dancing. St. Denis married Ted Shawn, and they formed Denishawn, a modern dance company. Shawn codirected the company, and founded Jacob's Pillow center, a residence for dancers.
Mary Wigman, an influential German modern dancer, contributed to the field in psychological and emotional approaches to creativity. She studied with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, creator of eurythmics (a way to teach coordination of body movement and music), and with Rudolf von Laban, creator of Labanotation (one of the methods for recording body movement on paper).
The most exact technique for modern dance came from Martha Graham. She created the contraction and release concept, and based her technique on the breathing cycle of the human body. Doris Humphrey, a student of Ruth St. Denis, created her technique based on fall and recovery theory.
Graham and Humphrey both studied at, and eventually left Denishawn, each forming her own company. Humphrey allied herself with Charles Weidman, and they formed one branch of American modern dance. The other branch belonged to Martha Graham.
Jose Limon and Lester Horton are two other major pioneers of modern dance. Horton's technique is one of three still widely taught today, the other two being Humphrey's and Graham's.
Successive generations of dancers and choreographers have changed and continue to shape modern dance as time goes on.
Information obtained from Penrod and Plastino's "The Dancer Prepares."