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The early 20th century saw the emergence of modern dance in New York, a new, distinctively American art form. Perhaps the best known figure in modern dance, Martha Graham, was a pupil of pioneer Ruth St. Denis. Many of Graham's most popular works were produced in collaboration with New York's leading composers -- Appalachian Spring with Aaron Copland, for example. Merce Cunningham, a former ballet student and performer with Martha Graham, presented his first New York solo concert with John Cage in 1944. Influenced by Cage and embracing modernist ideology using postmodern processes, Cunningham introduced chance procedures and pure movement to choreography and Cunningham technique to the cannon of 20th century dance techniques. Cunningham set the seeds for postmodern dance with his non-linear, non-climactic, non-psychological abstract work. In these works each element is in and of itself expressive, and the observer determines what it communicates. George Balanchine, one of the 20th century's foremost choreographers and the first pioneer of contemporary ballet, formed a bridge between classical and modern ballet. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. Balanchine also brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, the New York City Ballet; one such dancer was Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine's piece Episodes. Another significant modern choreographer, Twyla Tharp, choreographed Push Comes To Shove for the American Ballet Theatre under Mikhail Baryshnikov's artistic directorship in 1976; in 1986 she created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both these pieces were considered innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements melded with the characteristics of contemporary ballet such as the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers.

New York has also historically been a center for African-American modern dance. Alvin Ailey, a student of Lester Horton (and later Martha Graham), spent several years working in both concert and theatre dance. In 1958 Ailey and a group of young African-American dancers formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs annually at City Center Theater in New York City. Ailey drew upon his memories of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration. Bill T. Jones, winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Award in 1994, choreographed for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among others. Another significant African-American dancer, Pearl Primus, made her debut on February 24, 1943 at the 92nd Street Y as a social-protest dancer. Her concerns and expression fit into the landscape of the ongoing Harlem renaissance and gained much public support, and was immediately graced with attention after her first professional solo debut. Her dances were inspired by revolutionary African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham. Primus became known for her singular ability to jump very high while dancing. She focused on matters such as oppression, racial prejudice, and violence. New York was the birthplace of other dance forms, as well. Breakdance became an influential street dance style that emerged as part of the hip hop movement in African-American and Puerto Rican communities in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. It is arguably the best known of all hip hop dance styles. Popular speculations of the early 1980s suggest that breakdancing, in its organized fashion seen today, began as a method for rival gangs of the ghetto to mediate and settle territorial disputes. In a turn-based showcase of dance routines, the winning side was determined by the dancers who could outperform the other by displaying a set of more complicated and innovative moves. It later was through the highly energetic performances of the late funk legend James Brown and the rapid growth of dance teams, like the Rock Steady Crew of the Bronx, that the competitive ritual of gang warfare evolved into a pop-culture phenomenon receiving massive media attention. Parties, disco clubs, talent shows, and other public events became typical locations for breakdancers, including gang members for whom dancing served as a positive diversion from the threats of city life.

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