“What is Jazz Dance?” It’s a simple question, but the answers are not as straightforward as they might appear. We can find the answer by not just peeking at current jazz classes in dance studios today, but by also taking a look back through time at the powerful roots and winding branches that have built this unique genre and helped shape American history.
Jazz dance is defined in many different ways today, and there is often a lack of clear consensus about what makes dance “jazz.” This blog post takes a look at the origins of jazz dance and its evolution over time, encouraging dance educators to consider including historically-rooted teaching practices into their jazz dance pedagogy.
You’ll hear from Pat Taylor, the artistic director and choreographer of Los Angeles-based JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, Lecturer in Jazz Dance at USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and California State University, Long Beach, and Professor of NDEO’s upcoming Online Professional Development Course OPDI-M12: Jazz Dance Theory and Practice, as well as 3 past participants in the OPDI-M12 course: Isadora Snapp, Danielle Lydia Sheather, and Amy Van Kirk, to learn more about how and why they include historically-rooted teaching practices in their jazz dance classes.
“Jazz is a complex subject,” notes Wendy Oliver in the book Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches, which is the textbook for OPDI M-12: Jazz Dance Theory and Practice. Today, there are many styles that can fall under the jazz dance umbrella, including Latin Jazz, Contemporary Jazz, Lyrical, and Jazz Funk. That was not always the case, however. In the 1920s and 30s, a period of time known as the “Jazz Age”, the term jazz dance referred to a specific kind of dancing that was done to the wildly popular jazz music of the time. Throughout the 20th century, jazz was influenced and at times appropriated by ballet, modern, and ballroom dancers, resulting in what is described in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches by Patricia Cohen as a “continuum” of jazz styles that grew out of the African-American vernacular dance forms of the Jazz Age.
According to Cohen, dance in the jazz continuum includes shared social and kinetic elements, such as a focus on individual creativity within the group, call-and-response patterns, improvisation, bent joints in the lower extremities, use of an articulated and inclined torso, groundedness, body part isolation, and polyrhythm and syncopation.
What are the origins of Jazz Dance?
The roots of jazz dance can be traced back to West Africa. African people who were enslaved brought the music, dances, and traditions of their tribal cultures to America. Enslavers tried to repress this cultural expression by barring such music and dances, but the enslaved Africans adapted to work around the bans. They played rhythms on their bodies when drums and other instruments were banned, and changed stomping to shuffling movements when they were no longer allowed to lift their feet. Dances such as the ring shout, cakewalk, and pattin’ juba were practiced by African people who were enslaved.
In the early 1700s, these dances began to be featured in minstrel shows. Minstrel shows included dancing alongside skits and musical performances in which performers, often white men in blackface, performed stereotyped and harmful depictions of people of African descent. Minstrel shows laid the foundation for the vaudeville and musical comedy productions of the 19th century.
The development of jazz music in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought about new accompanying social dances. Just as jazz music emerged from the African rhythms and musicality, these early jazz dances incorporated African dance elements like polyrhythm, isolations, use of bent knees and flat feet, and improvisation. Ragtime dances like the one-step and animal dances, set to syncopated rhythms, grew in popularity throughout the 1910s. The dances were adopted and modified by ballroom dancers such as Irene and Vernon Castle to make them more palatable to upper-class White society at the time.
The Charleston, which had its roots in African-American dances like the juba and Jay-Bird, was popularized in the black Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild in 1923. It quickly became a fashionable dance for both black and white Americans. Later, dance halls like the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City became hubs for social jazz dancing, particularly the Lindy Hop. Many of these ballrooms were integrated, providing a rare opportunity for people of different races to socialize and helping to further popularize Black dance in White culture. Some of the dance groups that were formed at or frequented the Savoy Ballroom, such as Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, would go on to perform in Broadway and Hollywood productions, which spread the influence of jazz dance in the professional world.
How has Jazz Dance evolved over time?
As jazz music fell out of fashion and dance halls closed due to World War II, jazz dancing moved from social to professional performance settings, like movies, musicals, and concert stages. During the 1940s, professional dancers trained in ballet and modern dance began adopting and appropriating elements of jazz dance into their choreography for the stage and screen. Jack Cole combined his training in ballet and modern dance with his interpretation of “ethnic” dances from Eastern cultures and jazz dance elements. His style became known as “theatrical jazz,” and it quickly began to influence how jazz dance was taught and practiced across the United States. Theatrical jazz continued to evolve through the influence of choreographers and teachers like Katherine Dunham, Luigi, Gus Giordano, Bob Fosse and Frank Hatchett. It was popularized in movies and Broadway musicals, and became pervasive in dance studio classes. New styles of theatrical jazz dance emerged throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, including Musical Theatre Jazz, Latin Jazz, Pop Jazz, Lyrical, Jazz Funk, and Contemporary Jazz.
As a result of these influences and new styles, the jazz dance that is commonly taught today can be quite different from its origins. This has resulted in conflicting views on the nature of jazz dance among jazz dance choreographers, educators, and scholars. Dancers like Alfred "Pepsi" Bethel, Frankie Manning, and Norma Miller kept the roots of jazz alive by teaching, performing, and directing performances of authentic jazz and Lindy Hop. Scholars have worked to record and preserve the history of jazz dance. Many teachers and practitioners of jazz are advocating for historically-rooted teaching practices in jazz dance today.
Why is it important to teach historically-rooted Jazz Dance?
As jazz dance evolved, it changed in both style and practice. The essential elements of jazz dance, such as groundedness, articulation of the torso, body part isolation, syncopation and polyrhythm, improvisation, and performance style that is described by author Robert Farris Thompson to as the “aesthetic of the cool,” have become less noticeable in many modern approaches to jazz dance. The development of theatrical jazz created a shift from a socially-oriented practice, with a focus on improvisation and call-and-response patterns, to a studio oriented practice, with a focus on performance of a technique and style that is heavily influenced by ballet and modern dance.
There are ways to teach jazz dance today, however, that acknowledge the history of the form, and help students connect with a historically-rooted jazz style. Doing so has many benefits for both students and teachers. Pat Taylor, Professor of NDEO’s Jazz Dance Theory course and artistic director and choreographer of Los Angeles-based JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, describes the impact that a rooted approach to teaching jazz dance can have:
“When we investigate the kinetic and social characteristics of jazz dance, for example, it allows us to better understand the heart and soul of this unique creative expression by exploring its roots and embracing an accurate historical perspective. In turn we can take our students on a deeper dive into jazz dance, while modeling for them an approach that is inquisitive, that reflects connections across a greater continuum, and that values acknowledgement, attribution and the full jazz dance story.”
Teaching about the roots and history of jazz dance can help students embody the jazz dance style more authentically. Isadora Snapp of Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio in Vermont describes the benefit of teaching historically rooted jazz:
“I include historical context because I feel it is important for students to get an accurate representation of the history of the dance style they are dancing - no matter what style it is. It has given my students more of an appreciation and understanding of the roots of the style and therefore the roots of the movement. It helps me be able to draw out the specific movement qualities I’m looking for.”
In addition to honoring often-overlooked figures in jazz dance history and current practice, teaching in this way can also be empowering for students. Danielle Lydia Sheather, a choreographer, artist, educator who currently teaches for Southern Utah University, affirms this:
“Accurate historical context is vital to the appreciation, and understanding of the form. That said, many of the historical narratives that we have learned and continue to perpetuate do not acknowledge those who in fact built the forms or the present day culture bearers. I teach historical context to have my students examine their own lived experiences, what they have been exposed to and what they haven't been exposed to, so that they can bring their full authentic selves to the studio and be open to learning ideas they have never heard before.”
Moreover, teaching historically-rooted jazz dance addresses inequities that have been present since its inception. Many of the Black originators and influencers of jazz dance have been left out of the cannon, while their White counterparts have gotten credit for developing and refining the style. Black pioneers and propagators of jazz dance often did not receive the recognition or financial compensation that they deserved. Issues of racism and classism that influenced jazz throughout its history are often overlooked or ignored in education. As Snapp states, “It is important to fully acknowledge the contribution that Black artists have brought to the world. I don’t want their stories to get lost. Jazz in particular has a history that is often overlooked so I make it a point to bring that history into class.”
Amy VanKirk, Associate Professor in the Department of Dance at Radford University in Virginia, describes the importance of teaching historically-rooted jazz from a perspective of justice and equity:
“I feel that it is my responsibility to acknowledge the fact that I am a White jazz dance educator teaching a Black American artform from a place of privilege. Over years of teaching jazz dance I have taken a critical look at my own training, which primarily focused on a Eurocentric model. I think it is imperative that I continue my own education in order to fill in the gaps and pass historically accurate information on to my students. Teaching movement without context is unacceptable, and I think it is my responsibility to decolonize my classroom and constantly strive to teach jazz dance rooted in Africanist aesthetics.”
How can dance teachers incorporate historically-rooted Jazz Dance into their classes?
There are many different ways that dance teachers can incorporate historically-rooted jazz dance into their classes. Some of our Members and former students in NDEO’s online Jazz Dance Theory mini course shared their favorite approaches:
Isadora Snapps gives students a brief overview of the history of jazz in their first class session, then introduces different jazz styles, movements, or historical jazz figures throughout the year. Her warm-up is designed to help students learn about and embody jazz style, as she describes: “I start every class with a follow along aerobic warmup that teaches vernacular jazz steps. We talk about the steps and learn their origins throughout the year.“
Danielle Sheather aims to “teach from a place of piquing curiosity in my students”, asking questions like, Have you heard of Bob Fosse? What about the Rockettes? The answer to these questions are almost always in the affirmative. I then dig a little deeper, "Have you heard of Pepsi Bethel, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Mabel Lee, etc?" The answers to these questions are almost always in the negative. I then pursue a deeper line of inquiry, "Why is it that you have heard of folx such as Fosse or the Rockettes, but have never heard of Pepsi Bethel, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, or Mabel Lee? What exposure to jazz dance have you had prior to coming to college? What are you curious about? What would you like to learn more about?" This approach empowers her students to ask questions and examine how bias can influence history.
Amy Van Kirk completely restructured her class “in an effort to decolonize the content and teach from a place of respect and responsibility.” As she describes: “I think the most important part of this process is recognizing your own biases, knowing what you know and what you don’t know, giving proper acknowledgement, and making all of this very transparent to the students. I cover history in all of my jazz technique classes through written assignments, discussions, and self-reflections, all based on content that elevates Black voices and true originators/contributors to the discipline. I have also restructured the format and exercises in the class to incorporate this history and embody Africanist aesthetics such as working in a circle, use of improvisation, and complex relationship with the music. I’ve also made a point to invite guest educators to teach my class that have the lived experience as Black American jazz dancers that I do not.”
How can dance teachers learn more about historically-rooted Jazz Dance pedagogy?
Dance teachers who want to learn more about historically-rooted jazz dance pedagogy by enrolling in NDEO’s Online Professional Development course OPDI-M12: Jazz Dance Theory and Practice. This course traces the continuum of jazz dance from its roots to its many manifestations today. Dance educators will explore their own jazz dance identity through a process of examining historical jazz eras and styles (authentic, vernacular, theatrical, and contemporary) and by engaging in reflection, choreographic explorations, and dialogue with classmates. It is facilitated by Professor Pat Taylor, Lecturer in Jazz Dance at USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and California State University, Long Beach and the artistic director / choreographer of Los Angeles-based JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, which she founded in 1993 to celebrate the jazz tradition as a vital thread in the cultural fabric of African American history and heritage and a defining element of the American experience. Learn more and register here: ndeo.org/opdi-m12
1 - Oliver, Wendy. “Part 1: What is Jazz Dance.” Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches. Guarino, Lindsay and Wendy Oliver, Editors. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 2014
2 - Cohen, Patricia. “Jazz Dance as a Continuum.” Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches. Guarino, Lindsay and Wendy Oliver, Editors. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 2014
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
Lead Photo by Ansa du Toit. Courtesy of Center for Dance and the Performing Art.
Photo by Denise Thompson. Courtesy of Florida Atlantic University.
Photo by George Simian. Courtesy of JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble - adult company.
Class photo by Keisha Clark-Booth. Courtesy of JazzAntiqua's Legacy Jazz Project.
Photo by George Simian. Courtesy of JazzAntiqua's Legacy Jazz Project