Jazz was my style of choice as a young kid just starting out on my carpeted living room dance floor. I did it competitively, in groups and solos, from ages 5-15, and gravitated toward it because, as a dance style, I found it very accessible. A vast number of its signature moves can be learned quite easily, without requiring years of training and technique to pull off. It doesn’t take a professional dance master to whip out a jaunty set of “jazz hands”, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this highly diversified dance style.
Jazz dance is rooted, just as hip hop, afro and dancehall styles are, in traditional African dances of celebration and ritual. Brought across the sea with the transatlantic slave trade as early as the 1600’s, jazz style developed and eventually spread around the Americas. It inspired the evolution of several sub-genres of jazz dance, including tap, vaudeville, ragtime, swing, Broadway, and most recently, contemporary. The transformation of these diverse jazz classifications is entrenched in deplorably racist origins. While the jazz style may appear to epitomize joviality and light-hearted fun, we cannot forget the darkness from which it grew.
At first, there was an attempt by racist American slavers to suppress the earthy and joyous full-body movements and sounds associated with African dance and culture. Several government controlled Acts enforced throughout slave states strictly prohibited the African American people from engaging in any sort of expression involving rhythmic drumming, clapping, singing, and dancing. These Acts represented another form of brutal control added to the long list of ways in which African people were subjugated by white Americans during the slave era.
However, by the early 19th century, white people decided they quite enjoyed the rollicking music and movements created by the African people, and attempted to appropriate jazz style in minstrel and vaudeville shows. Possibly the first incarnation of blackface, early minstrel performances were basically a way for white people to showcase horrible depictions of black people as foolish, simple-minded buffoons, ironically through the song and dance styles these “buffoons” originated. These shows made it difficult for black performers to gain any respected footing in America, so a wave of them migrated to Europe and were generally well received by the decidedly more forward thinking Europeans.
The early 20th-century saw a re-emergence of jazz influence in America, particularly in New Orleans, where jazz music developed. One of the most notable African American jazz dancers found fame during this time, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson was primarily a tap dancer, and is said to have helped pave the way for African American performers to achieve national success as a respected talent in his own right.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s inspired the development of the partnered style of swing jazz, and spawned the Lindy Hop, Boogie Woogie, Jitterbug, and the Charleston. These social dances grew in popularity, perhaps as a therapeutic escape from the grim reality of poverty brought on by the Depression, but were ultimately halted at the start of World War II. This was what led to jazz dance’s acceptance into the formal canon of dance, as the social dance halls were mostly shuttered during the war. Jazz dance took on a new elegance, as its loose, improvised style fused with that of traditional and modern ballet technique. Professional jazz dancers were then recognized and respected within the sophisticated, and often pompously exclusive, world of formal dance.
Broadway shows can also be credited with popularizing the jazz dance style. The first notable Broadway production to include jazz dance was 1957’s West Side Story, by ballet and modern dancer Jerome Robbins. It combined traditional jazz influence with that of Latin dance, as illustrated by the tensions between the white gang, The Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks.
In 1966, the classic Broadway musical Cabaret debuted, which centers on the seedy goings-on of Nazi-occupied Berlin’s “Kit Kat Klub”. The 1972 film adaptation was directed and choreographed by jazz legend, Bob Fosse. Influenced by Fred Astaire, Fosse’s distinctive style embodies what we’ve come to know as Broadway jazz style. He incorporated props (hats, canes, gloves, etc) into his dances, and is known as the originator of “jazz hands”. Fosse then went on to create Broadway’s longest-running musical, Chicago, which is arguably one of the most famous and adapted musicals of all time. Modeled after traditional vaudeville performers and numbers, Chicago continues to epitomize the snappy jazz dance style the genre is famous for.
Today, the jazz dance umbrella is continuously expanding. It would be a dizzying task to list all of its offshoots - it almost defies categorization at this point. So why bother? Let’s just enjoy it for what it is: a fun way to expressively move your body to music you enjoy. Simple!