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 Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo Courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Rachel Papo

Martin Harvey brought a little movie star charm into morning ballet class at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. (His acting credits include Gossip Girls, All My Children, Dirty Dancing, A Chorus Line, Carousel, plus Metropolitan Opera productions of Carmen and Manon Lescaut.) Educated at the Royal Ballet School in London, he danced many principal roles for The Royal Ballet during his 12-year career.

Mark Your Calendar

Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.

Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What suggestions do you have for dancers to get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their backs?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

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

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox