Carrying the Jazz Dance Torch
Educators make a case for keeping the history alive in the studio.
Ask your students what their favorite dance television show is and most will probably say “So You Think You Can Dance.” However, the producers of the popular competition/reality show routinely describe dances as jazz when they often have very little jazz quality and are technically more contemporary or hip hop, says Bob Boross, a New York City teacher and director of Bob Boross Freestyle Jazz Dance.
What’s the harm in that? Experts say the misinterpretation of jazz dance, along with teachers who focus on contemporary styles and a general lack of knowledge about the artform, is helping to contribute to the loss of jazz dance’s historical and cultural lineage. Patricia Cohen, who studied with Matt Mattox, Luigi and Lynn Simonson, works with ballet students in her capacity as academic advisor to the NYU/American Ballet Theatre Ballet Pedagogy Program. She claims that a full understanding of jazz dance can help dancers to better embody the work of any choreographer or culture. Yet too often, she says, jazz dance students walk away from their studies with strong technique, but without the knowledge or background of how the artform started or has changed through the years.
“Many times people think jazz dance just needs to be sexy and face the audience and have a lot of tricks,” says Nora Ambrosio, professor and chair of the department of dance at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and author of Learning about Dance. “People need to step away from that and realize that this is an artform that has a rich cultural history, especially for our country.”
Jazz dance grew out of African music and dance roots, including jazz music. It is based on stylistic vernacular movements (social dances created outside of a studio), but during the 1950s, a split from vernacular-based jazz dance (cakewalk, Charleston, jitterbug, swing, etc.) created a theatrical-based version of jazz dance with Caribbean and Latin American influences. This is the version that can now be seen on Broadway and in the codified forms of jazz dance from masters such as Mattox, Luigi and Gus Giordano.
But whether or not the goal is theatrical, Cohen says jazz dance should not be learned in order to please an audience. “After all, it is essentially vernacular—dance of the people,” she says. “It is passed down to please oneself and one’s peers, to challenge them and to find kinetic joy.”
To be included in the jazz dance heritage, Boross says, a dance work should embody a noticeable amount of traditional jazz dance movement characteristics. That would include dancing in plié, movement that emanates from the pelvis and through the extremities, isolations, syncopation, dynamic extremes, strong energy flow either in visible bursts or in contained format (hot vs. cool), and letting the movement reflect reactions to rhythmic accompaniment.
Jazz dance, together with jazz music, is a living form of American history because it reflects the social, political and religious issues of the era in which the dances were created and made popular. That is why, in order to be fully knowledgeable, dancers and choreographers must learn the vernacular and understand how it informs contemporary feeling, says Boross. One example: Michael Jackson was credited with creating the Moonwalk, but 1920s vaudeville performers who had extracted it from mime technique performed the movement on a regular basis. “Dancers from today’s time period have no exposure to that potent source,” says Boross. “So their movement ability is deficient, if you are talking about understanding the original feeling.” To focus exclusively on the contemporary style, which tends to be a mix of ballet and modern with few jazz qualities, “without mastering the deep well of potential and power than can be found in the vernacular,” says Boross, “is a wasted opportunity to expand and improve one’s expressive skills.”
Taking It Into the Studio
As an instructor, aim to teach the historical and cultural context behind jazz dance from its roots on through its continual evolution. When you take time out of a technique class to teach the historical correlation, it helps dancers better understand the movement, Boross says. “It sparks a new, personal and intense connection,” he says. “The student then gives a performance with fuller meaning and more authentic feeling, leading to more impact on the audience.”
A swing combination, for example, might lead to a discussion about the Lindy, the Savoy Ballroom and how Jack Cole would visit the ballroom to observe the dancers and bring those observations into his own style and choreography.
Boross, for example, often gives a combination in his own style and then dissects the individual positions, letting the students know where a move came from or how he manipulated it. He might say, for instance, “Here is a pose reminiscent of Michael Bennett. Here is a movement that draws from my studies with Matt Mattox,” or “When I was a little kid I used to do the dance called The Twist,” and then he might bring that movement into a combination and talk about Chubby Checker.
Make sure to utilize the core elements of traditional jazz dance—an earthy quality, pliés, isolations and syncopation. Ambrosio often sees students who don’t know how to use a deep plié, an element that allows dancers to be grounded, and she has noticed that in general, there is not a strong enough use or understanding of syncopation. “A lot of jazz dance is done to popular music with a strong beat, putting the movements on the one-count, and that is not what characterizes jazz,” she says. She encourages her students to listen to jazz music and its mixed meters. “Jazz music is improvised, so even within a structured jazz dance, there should be a feeling of improvisation,” she says.
Teachers can also utilize DVDs and online videos to compare and contrast current trends. “There is so much at your disposal,” Ambrosio says. There are online clips from the early 1900s where you can see the beginnings of tap dance and jazz dance, as well as traditional African dance. She says her students often recognize the movement and call out: “We do that step!” or “We’ve done that before.”
Teaching short movement phrases from specific time periods, including the original vernacular versions—even with the aid of video clips—is a useful way to introduce students to the historical background of the creators and the social and political climate of the time and location.
Whether you research it on your own or with your students, the information can deepen future choreography. “You really need to be using sophisticated choreographic elements when creating jazz,” says Ambrosio. “Consider space, time and energy; look at how you manipulate level and direction change; and use different points onstage or timing elements where the syncopation comes in.”
Cohen also recommends sharing class lessons with other instructors, which can be done through online forums or at teaching conventions. But the effort starts with your own research, she says: “Educators need to further educate themselves, and then that context will help them bring in the history.” DT
Resources for Further Study:
African American Dance: An Illustrated History by Barbara S. Glass. McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, November 2006. 311 pages, hardcover, illustrations.
Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People by James Haskins. HarperCollins Publishers, April 1990. 240 pages, hardcover.
Great Performances Free to Dance, three-part documentary, Madison Davis Lacy, series producer and director; Charles L. and Stephanie Reinhart, executive producers. www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns. Da Capo Press, Inc. March 1994. 506 pages, paperback.
Hannah Maria Hayes is a NYC flamenco dancer with an MA in dance education from NYU.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives