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The Tapestry of Jazz Dance

Jazz dancing past and present

Jazz dance. It's unique to American and expresses universal human experiences, combining the very old with the very new. Its multifaceted nature makes defining it difficult, frustrating, and controversial. Artists, educators, and experts of jazz have both complementary and contrasting ideas about this rich subject.

Jack Cole, considered by many to be the father of theatrical jazz dance, defined it as "urban folk dance." Matt Mattox, a protege of Cole, perferred to use the term "freestyle." The late jazz icon and pioneer Gus Giordano labeled jazz dancing "the most popular of American folk dances." In the 1920s and 1930s, the term "jazz dance" was used to describe the rhythmic social dances of the time, such as the Charleston, Lindy hop and turkey trot.

Until the 1950s, jazz dance was linked to tap dance. Even as far back as the mid-19th century, the terms "show dance" and "jazz dance" were connected. Show dance combined the early influence of clustered tap sounds and larger-than-life movements of the legs, arms and torso. Its choreography, from minstrel shows to vaudeville, displayed a high level of showmanship.

Jazz dance tapestry

Jazz dance can be thought of as a beautiful tapestry consisting of many threads that represent diverse dance forms, styles and movements. These threads are interwoven with the passion of jazz dance artists who contribute personal signatures that nourish the style's complexity. The following are "threads" - forms and styles that unite past traditions with the evolving vernacular dance of today.

  • African-based or Traditional African Folk Dance: Dances by people of African heritage. Often flat-footed and favors gliding, dragging or shuffling steps. It is frequently performed from a crouched position with the knees flexed and the body bent at the waist. It generally imitates animals in realistic detail. It places great importance on improvisation, allowing freedom for individual expression. It is centrifugal, exploding outward from the hips. Most significantly, it is performed to a propulsive rhythm, which gives it a swinging quality.

  • Afro-Cuban, Latin, Caribbean: A blend of traditional African body movements with the elegance and formality of European court and peasant dances. This polyrhythmic form, which evolved in the Caribbean, incorporates movement from Calypso folk dance and Latin social dances including mambo, salsa, merengue, cha cha, rumba, and samba (and Brazilian forms).

  • Classic Jazz: A blend of traditional dance elements that "swing." A key element is dancing over and beteen the downbeats of the music. This style incorporates grounded elements of various dance disciplines, joint release, and a sensitivity in performance to the nuances of jazz music. Early innovators of classic jazz style and technique include Jack Cole, Matt Mattox, Gus Giordano, and Luigi.

  • Tap: Provides a rhythmic framework for the feet and other body parts.

  • Ballet: Provides a disciplined, structured technique in counterbalance to the freedom of African movement.

  • Modern: Breaks away from codified methods, allowing for infinite movement and choreographic possibilities.

  • Acrobatics, Gymnastics and Martial Arts: Give strength and power to both airborne and floor movements.

  • Blues: A sensual style influenced by early blues music. Strong emphasis is placed on isolations of the pelvis, torso and other body parts.

  • Lyrical: A fluid style that blends movements from European classical ballet, Amercian modern dance, jazz, and other world forms. The performer, through choreographic expression, interprets the lyrics and/or quality of the music. This integrated form allows for freedom of self-expression and has become popular in dance competitions.

  • Contemporary Fusion: Incorporates elements of modern dance, ballet, jazz, gymnastics, and other world forms with a wide variety of music or in silence. The movement often reflects the point of view of the contemporary dancer/choreographer.

  • Show Dance, Theatre Dance, Musical Theatre Dance, Commercial Dance: A stylized form of dance that uses music, movement, comedy, and a narrative to support its form. Early jazz performers in vernacular comedy, song and dance influenced this style.

  • Social Dance: Rhythmic dances connected to the dynamics of various cultures, with

European, African, Asian, and North and South American influences. Heavy influence is apparent from early vernacular dances such as the cake-walk, Castle walk, animal dances, Charleston, and black bottom, evolving to ballroom dance forms such as the foxtrot, waltz, tango, quickstep, and country western forms.

  • East Indian: Presented through the inventive work of Jack Cole and his disciples. Angular and equential isolations of the hands, fingers, arms, neck, and head are layered on torso movements.


  • Hip-Hop: An umbrella term for many styles of dance, it includes street moves such as popping, locking and break-dancing (old school) and a melting pot of movements that can come from anywhere or any time (new school); the two together are commonly called "new style." Backed by popular music (rap, funk, rhythm and blues, and techno), it has many characteristics of African traditional dance and early vernacular jazz dance.

The union of threads from the past with threads of the present creates an ongoing pulse and bright future for the jazz dance tapestry. Jazz is a versatile and creative form, gathering from and synthesizing a broad spectrum of sources.

Early prime movers in teaching jazz, notably Matt Mattox, Luigi and gus Giodano, have provided a codified method and approach that define jazz. Artists such as Jack Cole, Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Phil Black, Ron Lewis, Donald McKayle, JoJo Smith, Peter Gennaro, and others have paved the way forthe contemporary expressions of Mia Michaels, Brian Friedman, Billy Siegenfeld, Joe Tremaine, Rennie Harris, Ronald Brown, Frank Hatchett, Savion Glover, and an array of modern and hip-hop artists, enabling the creation of a "new style" of jazz dance.

Today the fusion of techniques, styles and forms continues to lead to new hybrids and thwarts our attempts to define jazz. No doubt we will still be debating the definitions of jazz dance in the year 2020.

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