Jazz Hands-On: Dance educators hash out history, future of jazz dance at NDEO conference
by Karen White
It was three and a half days into National Dance Education Organization’s four-day jazz dance conference when the first pirouette appeared. Attendees included 94 jazz dance educators from higher-ed, public school programs, and private studios, yet when the hours of technique classes wrapped up at the conference’s end, not one had included head-high battements.
“What kind of jazz is that?” you might ask.
Questions like that—about what jazz dance is, where it lives, who does it and why—drove discussions at the conference, Jazz Dance: Roots and Branches in Practice, held July 21 to August 3 in Newport, Rhode Island, hosted by the dance program at Salve Regina University. Hailed by attendees as a rare opportunity for educators, historians, choreographers, and master teachers to come together in celebration of jazz dance, the conference addressed not only the jazz lexicon but issues of race, relatability, and respect that impact how the art form is taught and viewed.
Sheron Wray, artistic director of JazzXchange, a nonprofit that creates jazz-based educational and performance opportunities, says teachers must guide students “to have jazz inside of them so they can own it. It’s not movement superimposed on a body—it’s a feeling, a relationship with music and with other people.”
In fact, the impact of the music on the movement separates jazz from modern dance, says Donna Davenport, professor of dance at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “Modern you can dance to silence, or dripping water. Jazz is athletic and rhythmic; it’s the music of the body.”
It’s clear from the conference’s forums, classes, and informal conversations that jazz moves dancers from the inside out. Five minutes into the first class—a study of vernacular jazz taught by Karen W. Hubbard, associate professor of dance at University of North Carolina–Charlotte—dancers were snapping their fingers and smiling, moving with an easy, bouncy spirit as Hubbard improvised a jazz scat.
That same feeling—a joyful melodic groove, a letting go (of tension and artifice), and a coming together—was evident in every class, whether it was lighter-than-air Billy Siegenfeld explaining his Jump Rhythm® Technique; Bob Boross oozing through the sleek, cool freestyle movement created by his mentor, Matt Mattox; choreographer and company director Danny Buraczeski tossing out a mind-bending series of steps; or jazz educator and researcher Melanie George smashing out an ’80s-influenced combo rich in syncopated isolations.
“Find yourself in the combo,” George tells the dancers. “To me, jazz without you is not jazz.”
So what is jazz? NDEO treasurer Patricia Cohen, a faculty member in the dance education program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, says she has stopped asking her students that question. Instead she asks, “Where’s the jazz?”
In Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches, a book of essays (many by NDEO jazz conference faculty) compiled by Salve Regina assistant professor Lindsay Guarino and Providence College professor Wendy Oliver, Cohen explains that jazz was born from movement and rhythms found on plantations, then developed post–Civil War in juke joints in the South and in honky-tonks and dance halls in the North. Americans of African descent, using traditional West African movements and rhythms, connected first to ragtime, then to jazz music with movements that would come to be known as the cakewalk, Charleston, and lindy. Cohen says that by the 1920s, jazz dancing was seen onstage in black musicals and was being “cleaned up” for presentation by Irene and Vernon Castle and other white entertainers.
By the 1930s, at New York City’s Savoy Ballroom, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers expanded on this grounded, loose-limbed movement by adding explosive aerial moves and jump-jiving euphoria. Today elements of this vernacular jazz live on in the rhythms of hip-hop.
But Cohen, in asking where jazz is, isn’t referring to physical location. She says she teaches her students about the qualities of vernacular jazz dance: social elements such as vocal encouragement, individual creativity within a group, and joyousness; and kinetic elements such as improvisation, groundedness, and use of the flat foot. Her students look for these elements to determine if a work is indeed jazz.
At the conference, George gave her take on the subject, breaking down jazz into five values: weightiness (and weight shifts), isolations, footwork, syncopation, and improvisation.
And, as much as they celebrate vernacular jazz, the conference presenters admit that what is called “jazz dance” today often looks and feels very different from the movement style that kept Savoy Ballroom crowds jumping. Moncell Durden, assistant professor of practice at the University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, presented a study of the jazz roots of popular hip-hop moves, showing, for example, how the Charleston’s scissor kick became the Sponge Bob, or how, when dancers bend their knees, crunch down low, and dance on the tips of their toes, they turn the Shorty George into the cat daddy.
“To me, the Charleston is ‘the dance.’ It’s in everything. Falling off the log—b-boys do it as top rock. It’s not new,” Durden says. “We see what our elders do, we add what we do, and it just keeps going.”
Higher-ed vs studio jazz
Conversations that began in morning technique classes carried over into afternoon panel discussions and small group sessions. The disparity between jazz dance taught at the collegiate level and dance studio/competition jazz was a prevailing subject. Some higher-ed teachers empathized with a colleague who commented that dance studio–trained freshmen lack basic historical knowledge and often protest, “That’s not jazz,” when presented with vernacular movement.
Katie Yourse, a teacher at Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Arizona, says she feels a responsibility to teach her dance students about authentic jazz. Because students “want to do what they see on YouTube,” she says, she presents the roots of jazz in small doses, making connections between, for example, the cakewalk and movements in the video for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” “If they don’t enjoy it, they won’t want to explore it more,” she says.
For others, the umbrella of jazz dance includes the work of innovators such as Bob Fosse, Jack Cole, Eugene Louis “Luigi” Faccuito, and Gus Giordano, who added their own styles—e.g., lyricism for Luigi or East Indian influences for Cole—to the energy and earthiness of jazz.
“For me, the tradition and history of jazz is so important,” says dance school owner Carolyn Dutra. “Yet it is difficult and challenging to define.” For Dutra, a former Rockette who opened her eponymous Rhode Island studio in the mid-’70s, jazz lives in Giordano’s modern-based technique as well as in George Balanchine’s ballet-based choreography for Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
But the fact that schisms do exist—between the jazz dance taught at studios and in higher ed, and between vernacular and commercial/theatrical jazz—is clear. Some conference presenters believe jazz should be danced to jazz music only. Others think the uplift and stretch in ballet-based movement negates the bent-knee bounce and swing in true jazz, and that commercial jazz has strayed too far from the vernacular to be jazz.
These thoughts aren’t shared by all, however. Carlos Jones, associate dean in the School of Arts and Humanities at Buffalo State, SUNY, observed the late 1980s commercial dance scene in L.A. firsthand. “That time spawned a creative group of people: Joe Tremaine, Jackie Sleight, the whole West Coast look,” he says. “Jazz dance has followed a pop lineage from the late ’60s through the ’70s, to Broadway, to today. Jazz that is influenced by ballet—I absolutely do think that is jazz.”
Loss of tradition
The conference delved into jazz’s second-class standing in the dance arts and the impact of racism on jazz dance. Much of what is taught as jazz has discarded vital, African-based elements, such as celebratory movement (as found in the African ring shout tradition), friendly competition (cakewalk), animalistic movements (turkey trot, camel walk), and gestures or behaviors (gaze the fog, spank the baby). Or, if these elements are taught, their African American roots go unmentioned.
Higher-ed teachers lament a lack of respect from their ballet and modern dance colleagues, leading them to feel isolated. “So many of us are in the trenches trying to explain why jazz is important; it’s exhausting,” George says. In turn, studio owners consider higher-ed teachers, in defining true jazz as its vernacular form and insisting that it be danced to jazz music, insensitive to the conflicts they face in their dual roles as educators and business owners.
Getting dancers hooked
“Get students involved little by little,” is the advice from Darwin Prioleau, professor of dance and dean of the School of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the College at Brockport, SUNY. She says jazz can offer teenage dance students something they can’t get from ballet—permission not to dance exactly like the person next to them. In her technique lesson at the conference, Prioleau instructed the dancers to perform movement phrases in a call-and-response with a partner, adding personal flair and challenging the dancer opposite to do them one better.
Similarly, Janice Baker, owner and director of The Dance Place in Des Moines, Iowa, and director of the dance program at Iowa State University in Ames, believes that jazz classes as a blend of swing and disco, of Soul Train and somatics, can be particularly appealing. In her classes she sometimes uses African drumming, but she also draws from her students’ iPod playlists. “We mix it up. I call them ‘kitchen sink dances,’ ” Baker says. “They help students understand this wonderful animal we call jazz. It’s like an octopus—so much stuff, going in so many directions, yet all so innately intelligent.”
The future of jazz
As the conference drew to a close, educators broke into small groups to discuss what they would take away from the experience. Topics included generations experiencing concepts through their own lenses; using jazz music and rhythms as teaching springboards; the need to connect the community, the studio, and academia; calling it what it is; feeding the soul; honoring the history; and valuing jazz.
“I have faith in the next generation of teachers,” Prioleau says. “You have more information than I had. Where does jazz go in 10 years? You tell me, because it’s up to you.”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.