History Lesson Plan: Jack Cole

The father of theatrical jazz dance

Theatrical jazz dance innovator Jack Cole (1911­–1974) forever changed the face of theater dance by mixing ethnic movement with jazz—what he dubbed “urban folk dance.” Culling movement from the dance forms of East India, Africa, the Caribbean, Cecchetti ballet technique and the Lindy hop, Cole transformed theatrical dance into what we now recognize as American jazz.

Born John Ewing Richter in New Jersey, Cole was a runaway who first joined Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn’s Denishawn dance company as a teenager, remaining a part of Denishawn, 1930–32. Cole then joined the troupe of former Denishawn students Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, getting his first taste of Broadway by performing in The School for Husbands, a Humphrey-Weidman choreographic venture. He was dismissed after six months for chronic tardiness.

Cole studied the Indian dance technique bharata natyam with master Uday Shankar. He also explored Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and South American dance, foreshadowing the intense research he would complete for each of the Broadway shows he later choreographed with authentic ethnic-infused movement.

Though several of the musicals Cole choreographed flopped or did poorly with the critics, his choreography was almost always singled out and praised. Though he could be harshly exacting and even punishing with his dancers, Cole did briefly revolutionize the dance employment scene in Hollywood. He set up an ongoing, salaried dance workshop to train a corps of dancers for Columbia Pictures musicals that lasted four years. He finished his professional career on the dance faculty of UCLA graduate dance center.

Signature Style

Cole’s movement is typified by huge leaps from deep pliés, rapid direction changes, long knee slides, syncopation and isolations of the head, arms and fingers. His rigorous warm-up is legendary—it included push-ups against a wall—and he auditioned dancers with a ballet barre.

Much of his work features a dynamic soloist (often female), backed by an all-male corps of dancers. This formula popularized the femme fatale vision—female strength, rooted in sexuality.

Selected Broadway and Film Choreography

Gilda (1946) Rita Hayworth’s one-glove striptease in “Put the Blame on Mame,” choreographed by Cole, solidified her reputation as one of Hollywood’s most famous pinup girls.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Cole’s extensive work with Marilyn Monroe for her “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number led to several choreographic partnerships between the two.

Man of La Mancha (1965) Cole was nominated for a Tony Award for his choreography in this musical retelling of Don Quixote.

Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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