History of Jazz Dance

Benna Crawford
Modern Jazz dancer

Jazz, the dance, is as experimental, free form and fluid as jazz, the music. It's fusion, it's inventive, it's exuberant. And, like the music, jazz dance is a uniquely American art form with influences from everywhere. The smooth and syncopated moves of jazz are always all about the performance.

Original Moves

Jazz came out of Africa -- an inadvertent import to American with the slave trade. The African people were steeped in rich somatic cultures in which dance was a sacred and a celebratory tradition. In America, African dance was woven through religious ceremony and social assemblies and served to preserve the sense of identity and personal history. From the 1600s on, casual and intentional performances of the explosive, sensuous, grounded and rhythmic dances captured public imagination. It wasn't long before traveling minstrels copied the choreography, incorporating the cultural artifact into dismissive, humorous shows. But African dance defied racism -- it was too seductive and compelling to disparage and discard. Instead, the styles migrated to vaudeville, and then Broadway, along the way inspiring tap and transforming ballet and early modern dance developments.

All That Style

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the decidedly unclassical dance moves unleashed such fads as the Charleston, Jitterbug, Cakewalk, Black Bottom, Boogie Woogie, Swing, and Lindy Hop. Jazz music was borrowing rhythms from African music, especially drumming, and inventing new forms. New Orleans was the epicenter of invention with blues, spirituals, ragtime, marches, and Tin Pan Alley sounds. In 1817, New Orleans set aside an area of parkland called Congo Square for African dance and informal music improvisation. That was seed ground for many jazz musicians and performers and served as an important early venue for one of New Orleans' most famous exports, the wholly American art form called jazz. But the dancing continued to evolve, mostly settling into a vibrant style known as jazz dance that we now label tap. The rhythms infused even formal European classical ballet, adding a distinctly American twist to a court dance and leading to the hybrid dance forms that evolved in the mid-twentieth century.

Who's Got the Beat

In the 1930s, Jack Cole, a trained modern dancer, began adding influences from East Indian and African dance to his choreography. He became an important influence for some of the great 20th-century masters of performance jazz, who lit up Hollywood and Broadway with their innovative and exuberant moves. Cole trained contract Hollywood dancers in his jazzy style, including Gwen Verdon, who would go on to collaborate memorably with the legendary Bob Fosse, and the indomitable Chita Rivera. Jazz dancers were no longer talented amateurs. They were highly trained -- in ballet, modern and tap. Jazz dance was taking its place next to "legitimate" dance forms and proved popular fare in every entertainment venue.

Branching Out and Growing Up

A constellation of innovative choreographers indelibly altered the very fluid jazz forms.

  • Katherine Dunham -- From the 1930s on, Dunham incorporated dances she observed on anthropological expeditions to the Caribbean and Africa to study tribal dance into ballet- and modern-focused pieces she created for her own companies.
  • Dunham, in turn, influenced Alvin Ailey, who choreographed such enduring works for his own company as Revelations, premiered 1960, and set Night Creature to the classic jazz of Duke Ellington. Ailey infused gospel, blues and African-American spirituals with modern dance for his own acclaimed jazzy riff on traditional modern dance.
  • Michael Kidd, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, had an uncanny gift for viewing balletic narrative through an everyday lens. He merged graceful classic dance with the prosaic actions of the story he worked on to wow audiences with such disparate hits as Finian's Rainbow (1947), Guys and Dolls (1950) and the Hollywood musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
  • Jerome Robbins had talent to spare and he married his first love, ballet, with reality-based jazz numbers that assured his place among the Broadway immortals. His initial collaboration with Leonard Bernstein in the late 1940s was a little number featuring three sailors on shore leave, called Fancy Free. That led to a raft of wildly popular Broadway shows including On the Town, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof, among many other Broadway, film and ballet works. Robbins signature balletic style lent itself to the flights of fantasy, folk dance and street moves that made each of his jazz dances unforgettable.

A raft of notable teachers have changed the way jazz dancers train and move, among them:

  • Luigi (Eugene Louis Faccuito) was sidelined from a nascent Hollywood dance career by a serious accident that left him partly paralyzed. The dance-based exercises he invented in the late 1940s to rehabilitate himself were an immediate hit with other dancers, who use them at studios today -- a universal shorthand for jazz technique. Luigi codified jazz moves, which earned him lasting kudos as a "father of classic jazz."
  • Gus Giordano also achieved lasting fame among jazz dancers in the 1960s with his freestyle, and head and torso isolations. But he is noted for creating the Jazz Dance World Congress and pushing for jazz to earn its laurels as an acknowledged art form. An eponymous, Chicago-based dance school teaches his popular technique.
    dance class

Bob Fosse

Where to begin with Bob Fosse? Maybe with his groundbreaking jazz choreography for "Steam Heat" in Broadway's 1954 smash hit, The Pajama Game. Fosse himself was an American original, one of six kids who toughed his way through dance school as the only male in the class, picked up ballet, jazz, marching, cancan, gypsy dance, traditional English music-hall and a raft of other styles that found their way into his dances. His new style mixed the elegance of Fred Astaire with the ribald comedy of vaudeville and burlesque. You can recognize Fosse choreography, made famous is such hits as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Pippin, Cabaret, Chicago, and All That Jazz, from a mile away. Turned-in knees and toes, shoulder rolls, splayed or open curved hands, bowler hats, fishnet stockings, pelvic isolations, a hinge from the hips, Fosse takes consummate control. It's tough to do and fabulous when done well -- the more dance training you have, the more likely you are to be able to handle the demanding subtleties of Fosse.

Broadway and Breakin'

Check out Broadway, the epicenter of performance jazz today, and you'll find fusion in full flower. A recent revival of Pippin adapted Fosse's iconic choreography to circus aerials and acrobatics. Lion King is heavily influenced by modern. Cats is really traditionally jazzy, with modern dancers and ballet dancers mimicking the moves of felines. Hamilton adds hip hop to the flavor. When breakdancing comes to Broadway, the result is a high-energy hybrid -- just a whole lotta jazz. Tutting, popping, moonwalking and other hip hop styles come from immigrants to the South Bronx from Gambia, Mali and Senegal, West African nations, so jazz doesn't stray too far from its roots. It is what you can make it -- as long as the moves are imaginative and really slick, audiences remain enthralled. The appeal of such rhythmic and sensuous choreography hooks dancers and elicits frequent applause, whether it's onstage, on the street or on a screen.

Where Does It Go From Here

There are no limits to the directions jazz choreographers may explore -- tomorrow's jazz hasn't even been imagined today. But one thing is certain: marvelous, remarkable, memorable and mind-blowing jazz dance will just keep reinventing itself and finding new fans. It can never run out of raw material. Jazz is as American as apple pie, a mishmash of world cultures and inspiration distilled into a captivating singular sensation that you may find hard to define but will always recognize when you see it.

History of Jazz Dance