Jazz dance has a long and surprisingly complicated history. Like many popular activities today, the style has evolved significantly in a short time. Many consider jazz to be from America, but as with many things – hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie – jazz did not originate there.
Origins in African Culture
The original rhythms and body movements of what would eventually become jazz were brought to America by African slaves. African dances were practised low to the earth, with knees bent, pulsating movements characterised by body isolations, and rhythmic clapping. After so long enslaved in foreign lands, many Africans lost their tribal traditions and became intermingled with other tribes and European groups. This mixing of cultures spawned a style of dance that eventually became jazz. Despite the 1740 Slave Act banning slaves from playing African drums or doing their native dances, the traditions persevered.
19th Century America
After a time, white Americans decided they enjoyed the performances put on by their slaves and began appropriating them into minstrel and vaudeville shows. These were mockeries of African American dance styles and music done in blackface. The knock-on effect of these degrading shows is still felt in modern culture today, where it is considered extremely poor taste to style yourself in blackface or imitate a minstrel show.
Moving into Europe
Jazz dance and music were still picking up steam in Europe in the early 1900s. With black performers being sidelined by rising white stars of vaudeville in America, many began migrating to Europe. Their talents received more recognition and acclaim than in America, with some being able to make a living in the up-and-coming scene.
The Rise of Jazz
As jazz music spread across America, the style of dance it inspired rose in popularity too. In 1923, the Charleston was the new dance craze with body isolations being used in social dance for the first time. The foot stamping and hand clapping parts of the Charleston were a direct influence from its African tribal origin.
In the Depression of the 30s many people were entering dance competitions for a chance to win cash prizes. With Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong ushering in the arrival of swing music, many of the era’s iconic dances took off including the Lindy Hop, the Jive, the Jitterbug, and the Boogie Woogie.
Fred Astaire was a leading figure in the dance movement of the 1920s and 30s, eventually transitioning from Broadway to Hollywood. Astaire blended the fluid steps of ballet with the abruptness of jazz moves. He was the first dancer who moved to every musical note so that the rhythmic pattern of the music was mirrored in the dance steps. He never experienced a slump and was adored across his career spanning 25 years.
Decline and Rise of Professional Jazz
World War 2 led to a significant decline in jazz dance given the closing of dancehalls and lack of attendance. Jazz steps had become so intricate that it became less of a social dance and more the practice of professionals. Dancers with training in ballet and modern dance took up jazz as a professional discipline, adding a level of sophistication to the techniques.
Jack Cole, the “Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance”, was at work studying many forms of dance and perfecting his own style, adding influences from East Indian and African dance to his choreography. After extensive study, he began training groups of professional jazz dancers to star in musicals. Gene Kelly also rose to prominence through Hollywood. He had a unique, energetic dance style combining athletic, gymnastic qualities with tap and jazz.
From here on, so many greats took up jazz dance, each adding their own flair and influencing the others. Some notables include Katherine Dunham, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Gus Giordano, and Luigi (Eugene Louis Faccuito).
Bob Fosse is one of the most revered figures in the annals of jazz. He fought his way through dance school as the only male in the class, becoming an expert in ballet, jazz, marching, cancan, gypsy dance, traditional English music-hall, and a plethora of other styles. His choreography was distinctive, often bizarre, slick, and even erotic.
Fosse wrote, directed, and choreographed the hugely influential 1979 film All That Jazz, receiving two Academy Award nominations. He was a phenomenon throughout the 70s and 80s. Other works he choreographed include The Pajama Game, Pippin, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Chicago.
70s and 80s
Jazz dance continued to evolve during the 70s and so did public perception of it. Grease and Saturday Night Fever gave an edge of cool to dance, while breakdance exploded onto the scene in the urban neighbourhoods of New York City. Breakdancing is mostly improvisational, without predictable moves or steps. The emphasis is on energy, movement, creativity, humour, and elements of danger.
Jazz dance received a huge boost in popularity during the 80s due to prominent movies including Flashdance, Fame, Footloose, Staying Alive, Breaking, and Dirty Dancing. The form appeared in all sorts of ads and suddenly everyone wanted to go to dance school.
Michael Jackson also had a huge impact on jazz dance with his innovative choice of movements and the rising popularity of music videos. His choreographic collaborations with Michael Peters wowed fans across the world.
In the 1990s world of jazz, the buzz was all around street dancing, street funk, and hip hop. Street dancing is an umbrella term that encompasses funk, popping, breakdancing, and hip hop. Hip hop dance is done to hip hop music and has blown up in popularity alongside its accompanying music. The dance style uses the whole body including complex footwork, body isolations, breakdancing, and gymnastic moves.
In Living Color ran for five seasons in the 90s, giving wider audiences their first view into the world of street dance. The featured troupe of Fly Girls developed a style of jazz, which mixed street dance with technical ballet and jazz moves, choreographed by Rosie Perez.
Contemporary Jazz Dance
Jazz dance has spun off into so many sub-genres and variant styles that these days it has a presence across all media. Street dance, swing dance, and hip hop are but a few of the later influences which themselves have spawned other variations.
Movies like Shall We Dance, Magic Mike, La La Land, and the Step Up series have inspired more people to get involved and sign up to dance school.
Modern-day jazz dance and its successor forms are popular within the music industry, featured in stage plays and musicals, at events, in schools, on the streets, and across the internet. It is considered a predominantly American contribution to the world of dance, with so much of its history and evolution steeped in African American culture. While the everchanging nature of jazz dance means that most people wouldn’t recognise it in its original form, they likely feel the spirit of it whenever they hear a certain song, chance upon a boppy film, see a classic music video, or scroll through their social media feed.