Jazz dance

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Jazz Dance
Modern jazz dancers.

Jazz dance is a classification shared by a broad range of dance styles. Before the 1950s, jazz dance referred to dance styles that originated from African American vernacular dance. Jazz dance was an integral part of jazz until the end of the swing era in the late 1940s.[1] In the 1950s, a new genre of jazz dance — modern jazz dance — emerged, with roots in Caribbean traditional dance. Every individual style of jazz dance has roots traceable to one of these two distinct origins. Jazz was a big hit in the early '50s and it is still a well-loved style of dance all over the world.


The term "jazz" was first applied to a style of dance during World War I.[2] Jazz in a dance form, however, originates from the vernacular dances of Africans when they were brought to the Americas on slave ships.[3] Jazz dance first appeared in African American culture in the United States. The dance form is linked with native music of African slaves, featuring "free conversation-like style of extemporaneous improvisation." [4] Beginning with slavery, the constant mockery of different cultures, portrayed through dance, created new styles and genres that continued to evolve. After the end of Minstrelsy and vaudeville shows, dance as entertainment took two routes: jazz-as a popular social dance- and burlesque-a non-reciprocal form of dance- but both had a huge presence in the social and entertainment life within New Orleans. Jazz dance in particular developed alongside jazz music in New Orleans in the early 1900s.[5] New Orleans was an incubator of dance because of the many cultural clashes that took place in the history of the city. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, jazz dance transformed from this vernacular form into a theatre-based performance form of dance that required trained dancers.[6][7] During this time, choreographers from the modern and ballet dance worlds experimented with the jazz dance style.[6] These included choreographers such as George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jack Cole, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse.[6] All of these choreographers influenced jazz by requiring highly trained dancers to perform a specific set of movements, which differed greatly from the colloquial form of New Orleans in the 1900s.[5][6] Also during this time period (circa. 1950) jazz dance was profoundly influenced by Caribbean and other Latin American dance styles introduced by anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham.[8]

Jazz dance is still a popular form of dance, and many dancers have flocked to New Orleans, Louisiana for the connection the city has with music. With the prominence of jazz music and the laid-back attitude of the city, many professional swing-dancers have moved to New Orleans in an attempt to kick-start a revision of the neo-swing dance movement.[9] People can find many opportunities in New Orleans to show off their jazz dance skills or get the opportunity to learn, including programs like the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown, January Jump' n' Jive, or with schools such as Dance Quarter, which hosts both events and dance classes.[9]

Where jazz dance gained notoriety[edit]

Jazz dancers with company Giordano Dance Chicago perform a routine with classical jazz elements

Jazz in New Orleans developed with community life such as brass band funerals and music in park picnics or ball games. The spirit of New Orleans and jazz music connected the performer to the audience, offering a link through which all parties could participate; this allowed for the growth of dance around the city's musical style.[10] In New Orleans, big bands in the 1930s and 1940s made a living by playing in large ballrooms, amusement parks, hotels, and other venues for dancing.[1]

Funky Butt Hall: Officially Kinney's Hall or McKenna's Hall, but known to ragtime musicians and dancers as Funky Butt Hall,[11] this church/dance hall housed many weekend night dances to the population of New Orleans. This dance hall was popular because of the repeated attendance of Buddy Bolden and his band, one of the biggest musicians to have an influence on the development of Jazz music, and directly dance.

Economy Hall: A dance hall located in Treme, near Storyville, dances were held because of the numerous social aid and pleasure clubs that had events in the hall. These organizations provided a variety of services, including brass band funerals and dances, to the New Orleans' black community.[10]

Jazz dance in media[edit]

The first appearance of jazz dance in media was with the representation of the basic jazz vernacular dance the Lindy Hop. The year of the Lindy's first appearance was in 1937, following a group named Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, who were based out of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.[1] Early depictions of jazz dance in films have been criticized for their compilation of activities unrelated to jazz dance (such as acrobatics and humor sketches), as well as the Hollywood depictions of African Americans. Early films would either be produced with all-black casts (such as Cabin in the Sky), or sections of the films would be able to be removed depending on the area in which the film was shown.[1] The Lindy Hop, as well as many other improvisational dance moves, have been difficult to capture on film as jazz dance is "both an improvisational and individualistic practice and a collaborative one".[1] Other media appearances of the Lindy Hoppers included the MGM musical Everybody Sing! and the film Radio City Revels.[1]


Students performing jazz dance at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Mexico City as part of Culture Week activities

Throughout its history, jazz dance has developed in parallel to popular music.[12] Jazz dance takes place with an existing song or movement pattern, and dancers "feel and fill out" impromptu variations based on the feelings of the performer and the audience's response to the music.[1] This pattern of development has resulted in a few elements of movement key to the dance style, the most important being that jazz is they physical embodiment of the popular music of a given time.[12] An example of this is that during a down time of jazz dancing from 1945–1954, when big bands and dance halls were declining, the vernacular of the dance followed less jazz music and leaned more toward rock and roll, creating moves like "The Monkey" and "The Jerk".[13]

Syncopated rhythm is a common characteristic in jazz music that was adapted to jazz dance in the early twentieth century and has remained a significant characteristic.It was first introduced by Louis Armstrong with his "late beat sing" and was translated from jazz music to dance.[6]

Isolations are a quality of movement that were introduced to jazz dance by Katherine Dunham.[14]

Improvisation was an important element in early forms of jazz dance, as it is an important element of jazz music.[6][15]

A low center of gravity and high level of energy are other important identifying characteristics of jazz dance.[14] Other elements of jazz dance are less common and are the stylizations of their respective choreographers.[14] One such example are the inverted limbs and hunched-over posture of Bob Fosse.[14]

Prominent forms of jazz dance[edit]

Lindy Hop: Historically one of the most known swing jazz moves in vernacular dance, the Lindy Hop emerged onto American dance floors after the popularity of "Dance-til-you-drop marathons" died out. George "Shorty" Snowden is accredited with the naming of this famous dance move and is noteworthy in the creation of the dance as a form of popular social dance. It first emerged in the Savoy Ballroom in New York and continued to spread to the rest of the country. This dance includes fancy footwork, musicality, personal styling, and improvisation, and was eventually incorporated into travelling dance troupes, such as Whitie's Lindy Hoppers, repertoire.

Shag: Beginning in the 1920s in New Orleans, the shag was another style of vernacular jazz. It gained popularity through college aged dancers who enjoyed the ragtime music of the city. It is usually danced to up beat tempos in 6/8 time while couples dance together, face-to-face or side-to-side. Although the dance is energetic and high intensity, the dancers are made to look like they are floating across the floor because of the acrobatic dance moves involved.[16]

Health benefits of jazz dance[edit]

It’s no mystery that falls from balance problems is one of the major issues among the elderly. According to CDC, millions of adult’s aged 65 and older get hip fractures, traumas and other severe injuries due to fall related injury.[17] Moreover, fall related injuries costs more than $20 billion annually and it’s projected to increase to at least $32 billion by the year 2020.[18] There is no one cause of imbalance in the elderly, several factors contribute to this problem, and the decline in physical activity among adults is one of them. Several studies have shown that the decrements in balance among the elderly can be improved with exercise,[19][20] which supports the fact that the age related decline in balance could be due to the lack of physical activity. Since the physical activity can counteract the balance impairment, it’s obvious to speculate that the jazz dance (a form of physical activity) may also improve balance, thus decrease the risk of fall. When Verghese was assessing the physical attributes of regular dancing, he found that the dancing had a positive impact on balance in older adults.[21] Not a lot of studies have specifically looked into the effect of jazz dance on balance, but if a dance in general can improve balance, then it’s safe to assume that the jazz dance would do the same. In a study where they looked into the effects of jazz dance on static balance, they found a beneficial effect of jazz dance on balance.[22] The findings from this study were consistent with few other studies, all of which indicated that the jazz dance was good for balance.[23][24] Since the jazz dance can improve the balance in the elderly, it’s very likely that it will reduce the fall-related injuries as well.

Notable directors, dancers, and choreographers[edit]

  • Michael Bennett, director, writer, choreographer, and dancer who was a tony award winner. A Chorus Line and Dream Girls are examples of some of his work.
  • Busby Berkley, movie choreographer in the 1930s and 1940s famous for geometric pattern and kaleidoscopic arrangements
  • Jack Cole, considered the father of jazz dance technique.[25] He was a key inspiration to Matt Mattox, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and many other choreographers. He is credited with popularizing the theatrical form of jazz dance with his great number of choreographic works on television and Broadway.[26]
  • Katherine Dunham, an anthropologist, choreographer, and pioneer in Black theatrical dance. She introduced isolations jazz dance.[8][14]
  • Eugene Louis Facciuto (a.k.a. "Luigi"), an accomplished dancer who, after suffering a crippling automobile accident in the 1950s, created a new style of jazz dance based on the warm-up exercises he invented to circumvent his physical handicaps. The exercise routine he created for his own rehabilitation became the world's first complete technique for learning jazz dance.[citation needed]
  • Bob Fosse, a noted jazz choreographer who created a new form of jazz dance that was inspired by Fred Astaire and the burlesque and vaudeville styles.
  • Gus Giordano, an influential jazz dancer and choreographer, known for his clean, precise movement qualities.[14]
  • Michael Jackson, known as "The King of Pop"
  • Leon James, authentic Jazz dancers from the 1930s original member of "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
  • Gene Kelly, award winning dance film icon. Known for continuing his career for over 60 years. Work can be found in Singin' in the Rain and On the Town.
  • Frankie Manning, Lindy Hop and authentic Jazz dancer and choreographer
  • Norma Miller, known worldwide as the "Queen of Swing" Lindy Hop and authentic Jazz dancer and choreographer
  • Al Minns, authentic Jazz dancers from the 1930s original member of "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
  • Jerome Robbins, choreographer for a number of hit musicals, including Peter Pan, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Funny Girl, and West Side Story.
  • Gwen Verdon, known for her roles in Damn Yankees, Chicago, and Sweet Charity.
  • David Winters known for his role as A-Rab in West Side Story and as an award-winning choreographer for movies and TV programs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Crease, Robert. "Divine Frivolity: Hollywood Representations of the Lindy Hop, 1937-1942." In Representing Jazz. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  2. ^ Craine, Debra, and Judith Mackrell. Oxford Dictionary of Dance. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print. p 238
  3. ^ Barnes, Clive. “Attitudes.” Dance Magazine. Aug. 2004: 98. Web.
  4. ^ Carter, Curtis. "Improvisation in Dance." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2, 181-90. Accessed April 24, 2015. jstor.org.
  5. ^ a b Barnes, Clive (Aug 2000). "Who's Jazzy Now?". Dance Magazine: 90. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Boross, Bob (Aug 1999). "All That's Jazz.". Dance Magazine: 54. 
  7. ^ Hayes, Hannah. “Educators Make a Case for Keeping the History Alive in the Studio.” Dance Teacher. Sep. 2009: 58. Web.
  8. ^ a b “Katherine Dunham’s Brilliant Legacy.” The Art of Dance. WordPress.com, 13 Dec 2009. Web. 1 May 2012 http://theartofdance.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/katherine-dunham%E2%80%99s-brilliant-legacy/
  9. ^ a b Reid, Molly. “New Orleans a Haven for Swing Dance Beginners, Professionals.” The Times-Picayune, January 21, 2010, accessed April 26, 2015.
  10. ^ a b “A New Orleans Jazz History, 1895-1927.” New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana, April 5, 2015, accessed April 4, 2015.
  11. ^ "Streetswings Dance History Archives: Funky Butt". Sonny Watson's Street Swing. Retrieved 26 April 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Caning, Laurie. “Jazz Capsule.” Dance Spirit. May–June 2002: 61. Web.
  13. ^ Stearns, Jean. "Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance". Da Capo Press. 1994. pg 1-2
  14. ^ a b c d e f White, Ariel. “Jazz Movers and Shakers.” Dance Spirit. Sep. 2008: 101. Web.
  15. ^ Darling, Matthew, Steven Gilbert, Bradley Hufft, and Craig VonBerg. Listen to the Music: Styles, Trends, and Influences in American Pop. 16th ed. Fresno: Kennel Copy Center, 2010. Print.
  16. ^ "Dance Style Descriptions". Red Hot Lindy Hop. Retrieved 26 April 2015. 
  17. ^ "Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 15, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2015.
  18. ^ Alpert, Patricia T, Sally K Miller, Harvey Wallmann, Richard Havey, Chad Cross, Theresa Chevalia, Carrie B Gillis, and Keshavan Kodandapari. "The Effect Of Modified Jazz Dance On Balance, Cognition, And Mood In Older Adults." Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners: 108-15. Accessed April 29, 2015.
  19. ^ Brown, Marybeth, and J. O. Holloszy. "Effects of a Low Intensity Exercise Program on Selected Physical Performance Characteristics of 60- to 71- Year Olds." Aging Clinical and Experimental Research: 129-39. Accessed April 29, 2015.
  20. ^ Means, K. M., Rodell, D. E., & O’Sullivan, P. S. “Performance-based prevention/rehabilitation of falls in elderly veterans”. Rehabilitation Research and Develop- ment Reports:106-110. Accessed April 29, 2015.
  21. ^ Verghese, J. “Cognitive and mobility profile of older social dancers”. Journal of the American Geriatric Society: 1241-1244. Accessed April 29, 2015.
  22. ^ Wallmann, H. W., C. B. Gillis, P. T. Alpert, and S. K. Miller. "The Effect Of A Senior Jazz Dance Class On Static Balance In Healthy Women Over 50 Years Of Age: A Pilot Study." Biological Research for Nursing: 257-66. Accessed April 30, 2015.
  23. ^ Federici, Ario, Silvia Bellagamba, and Marco B. L. Rocchi. "Does Dance-based Training Improve Balance in Adult and Young Old Subjects? A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial." Aging Clinical and Experimental Research: 385-89. Accessed April 30, 2015.
  24. ^ Shigematsu, R. "Dance-based Aerobic Exercise May Improve Indices of Falling Risk in Older Women." Age and Ageing: 261-66. Accessed April 30, 2015.
  25. ^ "Jack Cole: Jazz (documentary)". Dance Films Association. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  26. ^ “Jack Cole.” Dance Heritage. Dance Heritage Coalition, n.d. Web. 1 May 2012. http://www.danceheritage.org/cole.html


  • Eliane Seguin, Histoire de la danse jazz, 2003, Editions CHIRON, ISBN 978-2-7027-0782-1, 281 pp
  • Jennifer Dunning, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, 1998, Da Capo Press, ISBN 978-0-306-80825-8, 468 pp
  • A. Peter Bailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey, 1995, Carol Pub. Group, ISBN 978-0-8065-1861-9, 183 pp
  • Margot L. Torbert, Teaching Dance Jazz, Margot Torbert, 2000, ISBN 978-0-9764071-0-2
  • Robert Cohan, The Dance Workshop, Gaia Books Ltd, 1989, ISBN 978-0-04-790010-5
  • Crease, Robert. "Divine Frivolity: Hollywood Representations of the Lindy Hop, 1937-1942." In Representing Jazz. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Carter, Curtis. "Improvisation in Dance." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2, 181-90. Accessed April 24, 2015. jstor.org.
  • “A New Orleans Jazz History, 1895-1927.” New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana, April 5, 2015, accessed April 26, 2015.
  • Reid, Molly. “New Orleans a Haven for Swing Dance Beginners, Professionals.” The Times-Picayune, January 21, 2010, accessed April 26, 2015.