In 1936 a major change to the presentation of dance in the popular theatre took place with the opening of the Broadway show “On Your Toes”, choreographed by George Balanchine. The staging of this production integrated dance with the story to assist in moving the plot forward rather than using it solely as entertainment. With the ballet at the end of the show “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, Balanchine incorporated jazz dance movements with ballet, combining the parallel leg position of jazz with pirouettes and attitudes. Balanchine was the first on Broadway to use the title “choreographer” rather than that of “dance director”.
Agnes De Mille was another ballet choreographer who used influences from various dance forms to create dance dramas for the theatrical stage. This can be seen in shows such as “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel” and “ Brigadoon” which were later made into motion pictures. A more technically proficient dancer was now required by Broadway to perform these works.
A seminal figure in the development of the theatrical jazz dance style was a man called Jack Cole. His use of Indian, ethnic and modern dance combined with the swing rhythms of jazz dance created a new style. Jack Cole created dances for such shows as “Kismit”, “Man of La Mancha” and the films “The Merry Widow”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. Cole is often acknowledged as “the father of American jazz dance”, his style influencing a generation of choreographers including Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse.
In the 1950s with the need for more technically trained dancers there began to emerge classes specialising in jazz dance. Up until this time most dancers trained learning tap, ballet and acrobatics. Classes varied
from those that taught just routines through to highly structured exercise programmes to prepare the mind and the body. After the opening of Bob Fosse’s show “The Pajama Game” in 1954, one of the stars, Buzz Miller, who danced the hit number “Steam Heat” began teaching what they called ‘modern jazz’ classes.
It was in 1955 that two teachers emerged who were pivotal in formalising theatrical jazz dance training in New York, Matt Mattox and Luigi. Mattox’s classes worked on movements that isolated parts of the body while training the body in a systematic way - much the same as that of a ballet class. Luigi developed his technique as part of his rehabilitation after a near fatal car accident that left him paralysed on his right side. His style emphasizes “the line of the body with arms lifted, chest high, and head thrown back”.
One other teacher worth noting was Gus Giodano who believed that “the jazz dance form is movement ... that starts from the stomach or solar plexus and creates a mood”. His technique incorporates aspects of yoga and aims to “create a regal look in the torso and head”. Classes consist of warm-up exercises followed by exercises at the barre, isolation exercises and jazz walks across the floor.
In the 1960s jazz dancing continued its shift away from social jazz dance while the teaching of theatrical jazz dance continued to flourish. Avenues for performance were increasing with Las Vegas revues, summer stock and Broadway shows. America was undergoing massive cultural changes and television was becoming more intrusive on the American lifestyle.
At this time in music there came the British invasion led by the Beatles, and sugary pop tunes sent young people flocking to the discotheques where dances like the Mashed Potato, the Frug, the Swim and the Twist became popular. The music had a steady, rhythmic beat but without the syncopation and swing of jazz music.
Choreographers like Bob Fosse were quick to absorb the new social dance trends and incorporate the movements with their own unique style into their choreography as seen in such hit shows as “Sweet Charity”. Alvin Ailey emerged at this time working on Broadway while also developing his own dance company, using many of the jazz dance influences in his concert work. This can be seen in the works “Night Creature”, set to music by Duke Ellington and “Blues Suite”.