Educators make a case for keeping the history alive in the studio.

Matt Mattox

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 Roots

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

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox