Guest Blog: All That Jazz History

One of our courses this semester, Jazz Dance Technique, explores jazz dance through experiencing and deconstructing approaches to technique, improvisation, and cognitive content. Since there is a strong focus on the historical and cultural context of vernacular (traditional) jazz, as opposed to stylized forms of jazz dance, it is not quite a technique class as the course title suggests, but instead a history lesson of jazz’s continual change and growth and a celebration of African-American artists – all through peer teaching, guest lectures, and guided exploration through movement.

Instructor Patricia G. Cohen designed the course so that it starts with the roots of jazz dance. Our first class involved guest instructors who taught a West African dance class. Each week thereafter has tackled highlights from future eras, including the dances associated with slavery and plantation life (17th to late 19th century); Ragtime era (1890s to teens); the Jazz Age (1920s); the Swing era (1930s to early mid-1940s); World War II and its aftermath (1940s); politically conservative 1950s-1960s; The Love Generation (1960s); Disco era (1970s); breakdancing and hip hop culture (1980s); and “hip hop evolved” (1990s to now).

Student group presentations on these eras begin each class session, followed by video clips and pictures, and then we explore movements from the era that we happen to be looking at that week. We’re going to head into the disco era this week (which also covers Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and socio-economic influences). So far I have presented on the development of tap dancing related to the 1920s Jazz Age era (the Nicholas Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, soft shoe tapping), and will present on Rennie Harris, krumping, and current dance trends later this month. Other class assignments involve written observations and reflections, as well as a vision statement and rationale for inclusion of jazz dance in a curriculum and a presentation based upon that vision.

Some interesting readings on the topic to consider:
- Hubbard, K. W. (2008). Valuing cultural context and style: Strategies for teaching
     traditional jazz dance from the inside out. Journal of Dance Education, (8)4, 110-116.
- Ambrosio, N. (1993). Jazz dance in the dance curriculum: What educators should know.
     Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, (64)2, 41-43,52.
- Kerr-Berry, J.A. (2004). The skin we dance, the skin we teach: Appropriation of black
     content in dance education. Journal of Dance Education, (4)2,45-47.


Hannah Guruianu is a master's degree candidate in dance education at New York University. She is a freelance writer and editor, flamenco student, and someday hopes to own her own studio. Before returning to school, she was the features editor at the newspaper in Binghamton, New York, and taught ballet classes at a local studio and community college.

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