A Brief History of Jazz Dance

by Brian Jones

The term jazz dance has been used to describe a constantly evolving form of popular dance. It has a chameleon quality that allows it to advance with each passing era, reflecting the changing face of popular culture. Social dances of the 1920’s such as the Charleston are known as jazz dance as are the theatrical dances of choreographers such as Bob Fosse. The stylised dancing of Fred Astaire and the works of the modern dance choreographer Alvin Ailey have also drawn from this dance form. Tap dancing with its syncopated rhythms as well as the body popping movements of breakdancing and Hip-Hop can also be considered a form of jazz dancing.

It is rhythm, specifically influences of African rhythm, refined in America, which connects these seemingly different styles together. Improvisation and individuality are at the core of jazz dance.

The origins of jazz dance go back to the importing of African slaves to America through the slave trade, which began in 1619 with the arrival of Dutch trading ships to Virginia. Dance was an important part of African culture often used to celebrate the various stages of our passage through life, birth, puberty, marriage and death. A slave’s first introduction to European culture was in the West Indies on his way to America. In African dance often movements that imitated animals were used with an action emanating outward from the hips and a propulsive rhythm to give a swinging quality to the dance. European dance on the other hand usually had an upright posture with a more rigid formality as seen in dances like the Jigs, Quadrilles and other pattern dances.

It was on the plantations that competitive dances like the cakewalk developed where slaves combined movements mimicking the stiff upper bodies of the European dances and loose leg movements from African dances. The winner of these competitions usually won a cake, which is where the name cakewalk derived. This led to the stereotyped image of the Negro dancer when white performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork. A famous dance of this time performed by Thomas Rice in 1828 was called the “Jump Jim Crow”, duplicating the movement of a crippled slave.

Minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment in America from 1845-1900. A minstrel show could have up to fifty performers travelling from town to town. The show had three parts to it. In the first part the performers delivered a comic banter lead by a master of ceremonies. The second part was a series of singing, acting and dance acts. In the final section the entire cast performed a parody of a serious drama of the time.

Ragtime music and ballroom dancing brought about the next development to jazz dance about 1910. Songs at this time often had lyrics describing how to do the dance. Dances such as the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug swept the ballrooms. A show called the Darktown Follies, which opened in Harlem in 1911, is seen as a turning point in how white stage shows were produced, borrowing from the coloured stage.

In the late 1920s jazz inspired music replaced the white standards of Tin Pan Alley. Louis Armstrong was seen as being influential in creating this new form called “swing music”. African rhythms were emphasised in this style of jazz music. A partner dance called the Lindy became all the rage at this time firstly in Harlem and later a watered down version was danced in the white ballrooms. It was this dance which later had a significant effect on jazz dance style used in theatrical production of the 1930s through to the 1950s.

Theatrical jazz dance developed in conjunction with the evolution of the Broadway musical moving from light entertainment to carefully constructed integrations of drama, song and dance in the 1940’s and 50’s. The use of tap dance and soft-shoe footwork with loosely held arms and a general lack of technique gave the appearance of being improvised. The female chorus line established itself about this time with the criteria being beauty and poise rather than good dance technique.