history of jazz danceWhen you hear the word JAZZ, almost instantly images of Liza Minnelli, Fosse, “Cabaret,” or even polished, long lines, tricks and triple pirouettes in music videos, or from primly rehearsed cheerleading teams. Whatever the image is that comes into your head, the truth about jazz dance is that it’s evolved into various branches, forms and styles since it’s conception. Dancing, as any creative expression is one that morphs and chances with time, trends and social, political and economical times through history. People have been moving their bodies as a means of expression for decades and the “how,” in which it all came about has a history long and varied.

Whatever movements you’re currently doing, like anything else; language, wine and neighborhoods, has roots and lineage that goes far back than the eye can see. To be great at anything, one needs to know their history. Whether you’re a dancer, an artist, a dance teacher, or just a passionate observer of dance, study the history of movement. Knowing the influencers, the main figures and the evolution of movement will not only make you a stronger dancer but a more passionate one. And that, is what it’s all about when you get on stage and leave your heart on the dance floor.

The History of Jazz Dance

history of jazz dance

The term “jazz,” initially comes from the type of music that people were listening to, which then led to a specific type of movement and was attached to the word dance, which referred to dance styles that originated from African American vernacular dance. The root was the feeling and inspiration through the MUSIC that people were listening to (just like blues or rock and roll) which then evolved from listening to live bands in bars, or on the street into women and men raising from their seats to respond, in a physical manner to the music that they were hearing. Throughout its history, jazz dance has developed in parallel to popular music. This is incredibly prevalent, as hip hop dance has become more of a fixture in “popular dance,” at the current time. Both in music videos, tv shows and dance classes. While jazz dance has broken off into small niches through time, there are several figures under the umbrella of jazz dance that have shaped the movement and influence of popular choreographers that you see today. Genres range from traditional jazz dance, to modern and further back to the Cakewalk,Black Bottom, Charleston, Jitterbug, Boogie Woogie, swing and the related Lindy Hop. The latter, most of which are considered “swing dance” in the current dance culture.

The Main Figureshistory of jazz dance

During the 1950’s several prominent figures in dance made their mark and technical stamp of style on movement that still remains today. One in particular being Katherine Dunham. Katherine was a pioneer in taking the traditional style and essence of Caribbean traditional dance and make it into a performing art. Her movement blended cultural relevance and a unique style that people hadn’t seen before. She was shaking up the way that people understood motion and reacting to music and feeling. In addition to Katherine, perhaps a more “well-known,” name in pop culture was Bob Fosse. Bob Fosse’s movement had what anything to become popular, celebrated or well known needs to have; uniqueness. It was groundbreaking. The movement was detailed, specific and distinguishable. While he went on to leave his stamp on various artistic mediums including directing and screenwriting his work is most well known as being exemplified by Broadway shows such as Chicago, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game. All of which have had long runs and continue to play out in theaters across the country, and even the world. It could be argued that the term, or representation of “jazz hands,” in comedy and pop culture directly references Bob Fosse’s intricate detailed hand movements and placement in his choreography.

Additionally, choreographers that made a splash and remain well respected today are George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jack Cole, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Michael Kidd ((choreographer of Guys and Dolls) and Jerome Robbins. The root of this movement, while influenced initially by feeling and reaction to music was also rooted greatly in technical skill, which came from ballet or understanding and study of ballet movement. Even still, it’s rare to walk into a traditional jazz class where you won’t hear a teacher encourage their students to have a solid foundation in ballet. With the understanding of technical movement, a dancer if more free to express themselves in a broad range of movement. Abstract, modern and beyond. With that also comes an understanding of improvisational movement which allows a dancer to express and live freely, comfortably and with intention in their movement.

Gene Kelly, award winning dance film icon is another “face of jazz,” that people may see when they think of movement and jazz dance expression. His movement in films like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town is now not only classic, but timeless and hard to imitate. In association with this type of movement is another incredible influencer Jack Cole. Cole virtually invented the idiom of American show dancing known as “theatrical jazz dance.” His work can be seen in Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Two other teachers noteworthy for developing their theatrical jazz dance techniques after careers in modern dance are Ruth Walton and Gus Giordano. Giordano’s philosophy could be be summed up in his own words as such, “ “the jazz dance form is movement … that starts in the stomach or solar plexus and creates a mood.” He was the creator of the Jazz Dance World Congress and the author of Anthology of American Jazz Dance. A book which many dance teachers and studio owners have studied. Walton, on the other hand was influenced greatly by modern queen, Martha Graham. This movement, as much modern dance is (from choreographers like of Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan and Merce Cunningham) more primitive and pedestrian by nature. Also, more heavily prominent in current jazz movement.

While all of these incredible choreographers have shaped the way that we look at dance now, they would attest much of their influence to music, which goes above and beyond “jazz,” and into deeper roots like; latin, caribbean, rock & roll and so on. The mixture of European, African and Latin cultures truly created a new style of movement.

Jazz Dance in the Presenthistory of jazz dance

While the history of jazz dance is vast and the influencers above have undoubtedly influenced the people you know and love today, there is an entirely new movement of motion that we associate “jazz,” with today.

Undeniably, when people think of dance names like Janet Jackson, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and more than any other Michael Jackson, known as “The King Of Pop” come to mind. Michael, was and still is one of the greatest influencers for many of the dancers you see working in tv and film today. That applies to all types of movement, with the root of course being jazz. Now, that movement has morphed into various branches of hip-hop and beyond.

You may also reference popular TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance as a place of jazz and beyond. More typically in these shows modern and hip-hip are the centerpiece. It isn’t uncommon to see a combination of movements like both in sync in a group and individually that reflect a hybrid of dance styles. In terms of style and preference, there are studios all over the country that are encouraging and or focusing more or less on a specific style of “jazz.” From traditional to modern jazz. While there are “trendy,” types of modern jazz movement, traditional or “theatrical” jazz truly never goes out of style. It’s always a crowd favorite.

Jazz dance is an art form that is ever evolving. There are historic figures that have given dancers and choreographers a beautiful base for inspiration and there are even more coming up and making an impact every day, with an even broader ability to share their movement to a large audience. What types of dance have inspired and influenced your passion for movement? 

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