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The History and Evolution of Jazz Dancing

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Jazz dancing has been defined as an African-American vernacular art form that takes on several related dance forms under the same umbrella. It dates back to the mid 1800’s in which the African slaves choreographed beats to a musical art form creating their own rhythms, polyrhythms, improvisations, syncopations, blues, and swung notes. Their compositions were also related to other genres of dance, such as tap, ballet and African American dance rhythms. Originally, jazz was called tap dancing due to the routines being set to Jazz music. There were many influences that brought Jazz dancing to a popular level, which include African-American Slavery, The Church, Jazz in America, Minstrel Shows, Birth of theatrical jazz, Changes in music genres, rising of Jazz stars and heroes in which many steps are named after today. It is with these contributions and influences that we can outline the evolution of jazz from its origin to the present day style.

The African Connection

This art form did not fully take off until the mid 1900’s as the African slave trade brought Jazz dancing to the Americas. In the 1800’s, the African slaves had cultural dances to celebrate births, deaths, weddings, and coming of age. As this dance progressed, it was later symbolized with drums and interpretation of life movements. Moreover, the musical accompaniment to the movements played a large role in its development, as “African music generally accents the second and forth beats which gives a rebounding feeling, and thus the Swinging Movement was formed”. In addition to this, the polyrhythmic movements, “in which individual body parts are moved to according to different beats”, was another African contribution to the evolution of jazz dance.

African dance movements and drumming music:

The Church influence

According to the Protestant Church, it was considered sinful for slaves to dance and for this reason, the Slave Act was passed to forbid any dancing by slaves or use of African drums for dancing. However, Spanish and French Catholics continued to allow the slaves to dance in order to remain physically fit and as a form of happiness with each other. Contrary to the ban, the slaves continued to have an interest in dance in these regions and many instruments, such as the violin, banjo, quills, and fiddle, were made for creating music with the movement. Due to the ban on African drums, the same sound was alternatively made by toe tapping, stamping and clapping, which later created an “inseparable part of modern jazz”.

Origins of Jazz in America

The Slave dance was created as a fun recreational dance by white owners who painted their faces black and performed dances. While the African ban on dancing remained in effect, the plantation slave dances were considered to be religious and historical and by European influence, the plantation owners created the Americanized version of the Slave dance. This was a great turning point in the history of Jazz dance.

The Minstrel Shows

Minstrel Shows were part of the next evolution of Jazz dancing where white dancers joined troupes and travelled to various towns and villages to perform the Slave dance. Thomas Rice popularized the slave dance in the “Jump Jim Crow” where African Americans were portrayed as an idiot. As a result of these shows, some famous dance steps evolved including the jig, cakewalk and essence. From these Minstrel Shows came the birth of ballroom dancing and theatrical Jazz. Furthermore, songs written by African-American composers and animal dances continued to evolve during this era. High society even participated in the Turtle Trot, The Monkey, and The Glide as Broadway musicals began to incorporate these dances into their shows. The popularity of Jazz dancing continued with the introduction of musical comedies and dances featuring the Jazz style.

Musical genre change

Along with the changes in dance steps came the change in Jazz music. Fast paced music, such as Dixieland, was created and many famous composers began to create a less rhythmic style and more complex improvised sound. Accordingly, dancers found it difficult to create steps to this music and the popularity of Jazz dance began to decline. In addition to this, post-World War II brought more changes in Jazz music along with a federal tax that was put on dance floors. Influences in that era were Swing dances by Louis Armstrong, The Charleston, The Lindy Hop and The Boogie Woogie. An African American man named Bill (Mr. Bo Jangles) Robinson introduced toe- tapping sounds with just the ball of his foot. Later taps were placed on the bottom of the shoes and he went on to be one of the most famous tappers in the world.

Stars and Heroes

In America, a Jazz dancer named Jake Cole brought the Jazz dance style back to life. His claim to fame was that he created his own style which choreographed Eastern Indian dance steps to Jazz music which became an instant hit. It was named “The Cole Style” and incorporated a mixture of the Lindy Dance, flamenco and East Indian forms. Cole was trained in ballet, modern and East Indian genres which brought plie, floor movements, second and fourth positions and sensuality due to his movements as a whole.

Over the years several dancers continued to excel and bring fame to this genre. For instance, Katherine Dunham introduced theatrical jazz and popularized her choreography in Broadway musicals. Jeremy Robbins became famous when he choreographed the Broadway musical, West Side Story, which inspired many dancers worldwide with his Latin American dance and music style. Eugene Facciuto was the creator of the “Luigi Style” which “used the arms lifted in line with the body and the head thrown back”. This was a lyrical ballet style of steps set to music. The next popularity in Jazz brought Bob Fosse to the forefront, as he created his own style of Jazz by turning the knees in and hunching the shoulders. He did not relate to the Cole style of dancing and his style was inspired by Burlesque and Vaudeville music, which created more sensuality in his work. He was a famous choreographer on Broadway and the Fosse style had a distinct look.

Bob Fosse’s choreography in the famous “All that Jazz”:

The evolution of Jazz continued and became very popular in dance school instruction. Dance studios offered this style and from there evolved other styles, such a hip hop, break dancing, lyrical, contemporary, and street dancing. The technical aspect of jazz appears to be ballet based with a strong sense of core and balance in order to execute sharp, accurate steps, such as jeté leaps, stylized jumps, pirouette turns, fouetté turns and good posture. It requires much strength and endurance and therefore must have a good warm up strategy to assist with intense stretching for the movement required.

Jazz dance no doubt in the future will take on yet another evolution, such as the invention of Style versus Street genres as performed by the Dance Troupe from “So You Think You can Dance” this past season. The jazz world has begun to combine these two styles in a way that incorporates a new exciting form of Jazz. It is with this evolution that new stars and heroes will arise. If not for the African influence origin this form of movement and dance would not have evolved to allow the Americanization that followed.

Written by Liane Ireland, Director

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