“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.
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.
Jack Cole： (April 27, 1911 in New Brunswick, New Jersey – February 17, 1974 in Los Angeles, California) was an American dancer, choreographer, and theatre director known as "the Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance"
Jerome Robbins： (October 11, 1918 – July 29, 1998) was an American choreographer, director, dancer, and theater producer who worked in classical ballet, on Broadway, and in films and television. Among his numerous stage productions he worked on were On the Town, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, The King And I, The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, and Fiddler on the Roof; Robbins was a five time Tony Award winner and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Matt Mattox： (August 16, 1921 – February 18, 2013) was an American jazz and ballet dancer. He was a Broadway performer and a specialty dancer in many Hollywood musicals. His best-known film role was as one of the brothers in the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
After his Broadway and film career, Mattox moved to Europe, where he became a well-respected dance teacher.
And later, by innovators like Gus Giordano： (July 10, 1923 – March 9, 2008) was an American jazz dancer and choreographer. He performed on and off Broadway and in theatre and film. He was a master teacher, a gifted choreographer, founder of Giordano Dance Chicago, creator of the Jazz Dance World Congress and the author of Anthology of American Jazz Dance, the first book on jazz dance. He taught world-renowned dancers in schools such as the American Ballet Theatre, and choreographed award-winning numbers for television, film, stage, commercials and industrials. Giordano is considered one of the founders of jazz dance, and his influence in jazz dance is still felt.
Bob Fosse： Robert Louis Fosse (June 23, 1927 – September 23, 1987) was an American dancer, musical theatre choreographer, director, screenwriter, film directorand actor. He won eight Tony Awards for choreography, more than anyone else, as well as one for direction. He was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning for his direction of Cabaret.
Luigi： Eugene Louis "Luigi" Faccuito (March 20, 1925 – April 7, 2015) was an American jazz dancer, choreographer, teacher and innovator who is best known for creating a jazz exercise technique. The Luigi Warm Up Technique is an influential training program that promotes body alignment, balance, core strength, and "feeling from the inside."It is also used for rehabilitation. This method became the world's first standard technique for teaching jazz and musical theater dance.
Frank Hatchett： Frank Hatchett is a legend of American Jazz dance and is known as “The Doctor of Jazz”. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Hatchett was surrounded by a musical family, which influenced his early life. Hatchett’s family sung gospel, his father played the piano professionally, and his sister took dance classes.
Reference book : Comments on Jazz Dance, 1996-2014／Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About - The Definitive Biography of an American Dance Master／Matt Mattox Book of Jazz Dance／Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches／Jazz Dance Class: Beginning thru Advanced ／ Fosse Hardcover – November 5, 2013／Frank Hatchett's Jazz Dance／Luigi's Jazz Warm Up: An Introduction to Jazz Style & Technique／