Jazz dancing past and present
By Tom Ralabate
Born in America at the beginning of the 20th century, jazz dance melds the spirit of improvisation with the discipline of applied technique in a style that constantly redefines and reinvents itself. Jazz dance is seen on stages and in movies, on streets and in clubs; it is taught in dance studios and researched at universities. Its history engages both the past and present in a uniquely American way.
The history of jazz dance is an expansive subject, and following a time line encompassing four fluid periods makes it easier to grasp. Though this article highlights only key figures and events within each period, jazz dance’s rich history includes many more notable figures and details.
Pre-history and roots (before 1900)
In the early 1500s, as slavery forced Africans out of their homes, and their sophisticated culture of music and dance, to settle in the West Indies and the Americas, the resulting blend of African and European traditions gave birth to American jazz dance. Though dancing and drums were banned, African slaves found outlets to express their feelings through music and dance in daily life. The stamping and shuffling of bare feet, the clapping and patting of hands against the body, the improvisational celebration of movement and vocalization, the banjo, fiddle, and musical pipes—all were ways to maintain their identity.
The chanting, drumming, and dancing of the slaves mixed in the plantation setting with their white owners’ traditional, European-inspired dances to form what historian Marshall Stearns calls “vernacular” dance. These shared dances and culture led to stereotyping of African dancing by white performers, who blackened their faces and imitated their steps in an exaggerated manner.
In 1789, John Durang emerged as one of America’s first noted professional white dancer/actors, the predecessor of white dancers in blackface who popularized minstrel shows some 30 years later. At the same time, slaves began to satirize the dances of their white masters with dances such as the cakewalk, a high-strutting competition dance in which they mimicked Southern aristocratic manners.
Later, in New Orleans in the early 1800s, African dance thrived without outside influences; the French and Spanish Catholics who occupied this area allowed slaves to drum and perform their traditional dances during their leisure time.
Before the Civil War, white dancers monopolized the professional entertainment scene. It was the talents of William Henry Lane, a freeborn slave known as “Master Juba” and considered at that time the best dancer in the world, that catapulted black American vernacular dance to popularity by combining Irish jig–type movements and African polyrhythms.
From 1845 to 1900, minstrel shows were the most popular form of American entertainment. They popularized tap forms of the buck and wing, jig, clog, and soft shoe, along with vernacular jazz dances such as the cakewalk, but they also portrayed blacks in stereotypical and denigrating ways. Around 1900 variety entertainment became big business through the vaudeville circuit, and minstrel shows and such offshoots as medicine shows, gillies, carnivals, tent shows, and circuses became fixtures across America.
Early vernacular dance (1900–1940)
The next major change in American jazz dance came when “America went dance mad,” as noted by musicologist Sigmund Spaeth. With the popularity of ragtime music (from the 1890s until about 1920), hundreds of new dances flooded American ballrooms. Animal dances such as the grizzly bear, monkey glide, kangaroo dip, and turkey trot, at first popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle (who later rejected them as inelegant) were all the rage.
Early musicals brought social dances into the realm of entertainment. In 1913 Darktown Follies opened in Harlem, intertwining the plot with flashy dance steps. And in 1921, Shuffle Along exploded onto Broadway with the Charleston, a tap-and-jazz blend of movement, and a 16-girl chorus line. Anchored at the end of the line was the instantly popular Josephine Baker.
In the late 1920s, swing music allowed social dancers to experiment with movement, both in partner and solo forms. By 1936 the Lindy hop (later called the jitterbug), had become a recognized part of the American dance scene. The creative expressiveness of the Lindy allowed partner challenges and personal styles (like that of George Snowden) to come to the forefront and gave theatrical choreographers a wealth of new dance material. Its movement style and specific patterns gave teachers much to build on in early jazz classes. And the Savoy Ballroom–based White’s Lindy Hoppers changed the face of American movies with their acrobatic dancing.
Just as jazz music and jazz dance were evolving along parallel lines, so was the Broadway musical, in which movement and story eventually became integrated. Modern dancer/choreographers Helen Tamiris and Hanya Holm, who crossed over into musical theater, influenced jazz dance with their demands for better-trained dancers. George Balanchine, the co-founder and director of New York City Ballet, integrated jazz movement with ballet in his work on Broadway musicals, including On Your Toes (1936), of which the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” portion is now a discrete ballet in NYCB’s repertory. In 1943, ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille added an extended ballet in Oklahoma!, creating the musical dance-drama form. Balanchine’s and de Mille’s blending of ballet with jazz movement paved the way for choreographers such as Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins, and Jack Cole, whose personal signatures influenced the next period of jazz dance’s evolution.
Fusion styles (1940–1970)
Katherine Dunham, schooled in anthropology, blended ethnic dance forms from Africa and the West Indies with theatrical dance. Jerome Robbins combined his ballet background with theatrical and social forms to create West Side Story (1957), popularizing this blended jazz dance style in theatrical entertainment. In 1954 Bob Fosse choreographed his first musical, The Pajama Game, following it with three decades of Broadway and motion picture successes. His distinct style, characterized by use of the pelvis, rounded shoulders, and arm and hand isolations, is considered a classic theatrical jazz form. Choreographers Daniel Nagrin and Alvin Ailey fused jazz dance elements with modern dance, giving a new dimension to modern jazz works.
However, it was Jack Cole who left an indelible mark. Known as the “father of theatrical jazz dance,” he borrowed from modern dance (Humphrey-Weidman), ballet (Cecchetti), bharata natyam (a style of Indian dance), African and Caribbean dances and rhythms, and other world forms to create a new jazz hybrid. His style utilized African movements, such as deep pliés with explosive hip movements; East Indian isolations; the rhythm and syncopation of swing; athletic and acrobatic movements; and intricate floor work. The influence of his style, though redefined, is visible in current jazz choreography.
Cole, who never received star recognition, did not establish a codified technique, but the dance classes he gave to fellow film professionals such as Gwen Verdon, Carol Haney, and Rod Alexander helped to perpetuate his style.
In the mid-1950s, Matt Mattox, a protégé of Cole, began to teach jazz classes in New York, using the structure of a ballet class as a model. He codified movements that he learned from Cole, and his work evolved to emphasize an understanding of isolating the body with a keen sense of coordination. He used the word “freestyle” to describe his jazz style because it allows one to make both creative movement and stylistic choices.
Also emerging at this time was dancer Eugene Facciuto, known as Luigi (a nickname given to him by Gene Kelly). After a serious car accident left him paralyzed on his right side, Luigi designed a series of exercises and port de bras to rehabilitate his body. Incorporating the foundations of ballet with lyricism, his style reflects the harmonious aesthetics of movement and music. Today, Luigi’s oppositional rib stretch can be seen in a redefined manner in most center floor jazz warm-ups.
Two other prime movers in the development of jazz dance in the 1950s and 1960s were Ruth Walton and Gus Giordano. Both were influenced by modern dance techniques, Walton by Martha Graham and Giordano by Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais. Walton and Giordano made significant contributions to the evolution of jazz-class structure and in standardizing terminology for jazz dance education. Giordano, the founder of Jazz Dance World Congress and one of the 20th century’s strongest advocates for jazz dance, worked tirelessly to elevate the perception of jazz dance from entertainment to a respected art form.
With the advent of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and the English invasion and Motown sound of the 1960s, new social dances such as the twist, pony, and monkey emerged on TV. On Broadway, jazz dance took a step forward through the talents of Ron Field as seen in his smash hit Cabaret. The 1970s ushered in the disco era, and as line dances became the vogue, dance schools incorporated these fad movements into jazz classes.
In 1975 Lee Theodore formed American Dance Machine, a dance company devoted to preserving Broadway choreography (and thus vernacular jazz movement). Also at this time, resident Las Vegas choreographer Ron Lewis created a high-energy look for club acts that mixed African and street movements with isolations. Popularizing his technique were two extraordinary jazz teacher/stylists, Ann Marie Garvin on the West Coast and Betsy Haug on the East Coast.
New hybrids (1980–present)
Along with the technological advances of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the world witnessed the movement phenomena of hip-hop, music dance videos, and reality TV dance shows. In the 1980s, the early hip-hop choreography of Michael Peters (“Beat It”) highlighted the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Hip-hop escaped its 1970s ghetto roots and hit mainstream America as a dance trend in the early ’80s.
“Hip-hop” is an umbrella term for a wide range of movement and music styles that originated in urban centers on both coasts. Key figures include Afrika Bambaataa, the “godfather of hip-hop”; Don Campbell, who invented locking; Sam Solomon, who invented the boogaloo; Timothy (Popin’ Pete) Solomon, who invented popping (which led to robotics, strobing, dime-stopping, waving, liquid, and tutting); and Rennie Harris, who took hip-hop onto the concert stage.
Today’s dance studios often offer classes that blend hip-hop with ballet, tap, jazz, ballroom, contemporary dance, and gymnastics. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance, along with YouTube, has showcased these “new style” hybrid dances, making this style of dance accessible to all.
Among the choreographers who have influenced Broadway theatrical jazz dance are Susan Stroman, Rob Marshall, Graciela Danielle, Bill T. Jones, Garth Fagan, Jerry Mitchell, and Wayne Cilento.
Jazz Dance Time Line
This partial list of innovators in jazz dance reflects the four fluid periods of jazz dance history in commercial theater, film, television, dance videos, concert dance, and dance education. Although some artists’ contributions and influence expand over several decades, they are listed in the decade during which their contributions emerged.
John Durang (1768–1822): the first professional American dancer, made famous by his hornpipe dance. In 1789 he appeared in blackface, popularizing the minstrel shows.
William Henry Lane, aka “Master Juba” (1825–1852): one of the first black performers to tour with white minstrels and play to white audiences.
Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808–1860): a blackface performer, credited with a step called “jumping Jim Crow,” similar to trucking of the late 1930s. Called the “father of American minstrelsy.”
Whitman Sisters: considered the royalty of black vaudeville entertainment from 1900 to 1943. Introduced the cakewalk in 1908.
Joe Frisco (1889–1958): a vaudeville star of the 1920s and 1930s; billed himself as the first jazz dancer. His trademark step was Off to Buffalo. He wore a derby hat and danced with a cigar in his mouth.
Vernon (1887–1918) and Irene Castle (1893–1969): popularized ballroom dances, including ragtime dances such as the turkey trot and grizzly bear.
George “Shorty” Snowden (~1904–1982): popularized the Lindy hop and breakaway moves (e.g., Shorty George, camel walks, Suzie Q, boogie-woogie) at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.
Fred Astaire (1899–1987): Academy Award–winning icon of movie musicals whose signature style (which he called “outlaw style”) of musical theater dance blended ballet, tap, and ballroom. His career in vaudeville, stage, and film lasted 76 years. Credits include Top Hat, Shall We Dance, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.
Jerome Robbins (1918–1998): Academy Award–winning film director and choreographer; co-artistic director of New York City Ballet. He had an expansive career in classical ballet, contemporary and musical theater dance. Credits include The King and I, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof.
Katherine Dunham (1909–2006): American dancer and choreographer who blended African tribal movements with modern dance. Credits include Carnival of Rhythm, Stormy Weather. Former student: Talley Beatty.
Jack Cole (1911–1974): the “father of jazz dance.” His style blended ballet, modern dance, and world dance forms. Credits include the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Broadway’s Man of La Mancha.
The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000): Dance team of stage, screen, and TV. Their act combined early vernacular jazz movements, tap, and athletic innovations.
Matt Mattox (1921–): disciple of Jack Cole. His technique emphasizes the coordination of multiple body parts with polyrhythmic music. Former students include Bob Boross, Nat Horne, Charles Kelley, Graciela Daniele, Frank Pietri, Margo Sappington, Alan Johnson.
Michael Kidd (1915–2007): award-winning film and stage choreographer noted for his high-energy, athletic choreography. Credits include Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Gene Kelly (1912–1996): award-winning dance film icon. His career extended over six decades. Credits include An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town.
Gus Giordano (1923–2008): jazz dance innovator and founder of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and Jazz Dance World Congress, dedicated to establishing jazz dance as an art form. Developed a codified technique and style. Former students include Marcus Alford, Lea Darwin, Nan Giordano, Pattie Obey, Sam Watson, Michael Williams, and Susan Quinn Williams.
Daniel Nagrin (1917–): modern dancer and choreographer who incorporated jazz into his modern works. Credits include Jazz, Three Ways.
Peter Gennaro (1919–2000): Tony Award-winning choreographer who shaped the style of jazz dance on TV variety shows through the 1960s. Credits include Your Hit Parade, The Judy Garland Show, The Ed Sullivan Show.
Alvin Ailey (1931–1989): modern dancer, choreographer, and director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Credits include Revelations.
Donald McKayle (1930–): modern dancer, choreographer, and master teacher. He broke racial barriers and made contributions to film, TV, and commercial theater. Credits include Golden Boy, Raisin, Sophisticated Ladies.
Bob Fosse (1927–1987): award-winning choreographer and director who created a personal style for dance on Broadway and in film that is studied by theater-dance professionals worldwide. Credits include Pippin, Chicago, and Dancin’.
Chuck Kelley: an internationally acclaimed “teacher’s teacher” who has produced syllabuses and instructional CDs in jazz, tap, and acrobatics/tumbling. His former students work in every sector of the entertainment industry.
Phil Black: modern jazz-based teacher and choreographer who designed a class structure for Broadway dancers, teachers, and students of jazz. Former students include Greg Burge, Irene Cara, Charlotte d’Amboise, Eddie Mekka.
Ed Mock (1938–1986): jazz dancer and choreographer; founded Ed Mock Dance Studio, West Coast Dance Company, and Ed Mock Dancers. He fused modern, jazz, acting, and mime into an improvisational and kinetic style. Former students include contemporary jazz teacher Cecilia Marta.
Beverly Fletcher (1929–): master teacher and founder of AM-Dance in Concert, dedicated to preserving American dance idioms. Her tap dictionary, Tapworks, standardized tap and jazz terminology. Former students include Michael Bennett, David DeMarie, Sam Fiorella.
Michael Bennett (1943–1987): Tony Award–winning musical theater director, choreographer, writer, and dancer. Credits include Follies, A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls.
Ron Lewis: choreographer who shaped the dance entertainment style in Las Vegas during the 1970s and 1980s by working with headliners like Liza Minnelli. Credits include the Tony Awards, The Act.
Lee Theodore (1933–1987): Broadway performer, choreographer, and master teacher; founded American Dance Machine, devoted to preserving Broadway choreography.
Joe Tremaine: performer, master teacher of West Coast style of jazz, and dance convention director. Former students include Paula Abdul, Marcea Lane, Barry Lather, Marguerite Derricks.
JoJo Smith (1938–): dancer, choreographer and teacher whose unique African-Caribbean style became popularized at JoJo’s Dance Factory in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s. Father of tap sensation Jason Samuels Smith, and a key influence on his former student, Debbie Allen, choreographer of TV’s Fame.
Lou Conte: founder of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. He partnered with internationally acclaimed choreographers to create a force in contemporary dance.
Frank Hatchett: master teacher and choreographer, created the VOP jazz style. Former students include Savion Glover, Madonna, Brooke Shields.
Twyla Tharp (1941–): award-winning dancer and choreographer recognized for her reinvention of the modern dance style in concert and commercial settings. Credits include Movin’ Out, Deuce Coupe.
Lynn Simonson (1943–): master teacher and founder of the Simonson Technique, inspired by jazz music and based on principles of anatomy and kinesiology (see “Letting the Joy In,” page 76).
Brian Friedman (1977–): choreographer for such recording stars as Mýa and Britney Spears. Video credits include “My Love Is Like . . .Wo.”
Mia Michaels: award-winning contemporary dance choreographer for concert and commercial venues. Credits include Celine Dion’s A New Day, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Joffrey Ballet.
Rennie Harris (1963–): director, choreographer, and master of hip-hop in concert dance. Artistic director of Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Danny Buraczeski: founded JAZZDANCE, a force in contemporary concert dance for 25 years, blending early vernacular forms with contemporary styles.
Susan Stroman (1954–): Tony Award–winning director and choreographer. Credits include Crazy for You, Contact, The Producers.
Randy Duncan: Chicago-based contemporary dance choreographer and master teacher. Credits include Joffrey Ballet and River North Chicago Dance Company.
Garth Fagan (1940–): Tony Award–winning modern dancer and choreographer; blends modern, ballet, and African-Caribbean traditions in concert and commercial works. Artistic director of Garth Fagan Dance. Credits include The Lion King.
Billy Siegenfeld: Emmy Award–winning choreographer and director of Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. One of the greatest innovators of jazz technique in the 20th century.