In the beginning “jazz” meant sex, the beginning being the 19th century in steamy dance halls as well as the brothels of the American South. Like many words, the meaning evolved and in this case expanded to mean the kind of music played in bars, and again brothels, in New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. Of these, New Orleans, a city ruled by both Spanish and French before the early 1800s but was a mix of French, Spanish, English and various geographic African American slave cultures by the early 1900s, now remains the central center of jazz. The original jazz bands consisted of a string bass, drums, a banjo or maybe a guitar, coronets, a trombone and a clarinet; the music stressed the second and fourth beats of the bar, syncopating and emphasizing with swing the animation of 4/4 time. That is the background and an overview of the music, but what about the evolution of the accompanying dance?
The dance began as expressions of African culture brought to the US by slaves, but life’s interpretations were broadened to include the culture of the plantation owners which was European. The one exception to this influence was in New Orleans’ Congo Square where for the entire 19th century slaves were allowed to dance uninhibited, albeit with supervision, in order to hopefully prevent revolt or voodoo. Whites who watched these dances began imitating them, particularly the shuffle movement unique to the Africans, contributing to the Minstrel show which was so popular in a developing America in the second half of the 19th century. Sadly, the Minstrel shows depicted blacks as shuffling fools; however, the 20th century has been much kinder as well as more accurate as the artistic jazz dance has evolved into its current form.
The modern form of jazz dancing can be attributed to a number of pioneers beginning with Katherine Dunham who, in 1937, organized a dance group who combined the African and Caribbean jazz dance movements with elements of ballet, modern and ethnic dance. Then, in the 1940s, Jack Cole defined the steps into a teachable technique with an accompanying vocabulary. The next highly influential innovator was Jerome Robbins who in the 1950s and 60s choreographed a refined melding of jazz and ballet with drama. As New York City Ballet associate director, he incorporated jazz dance into musicals like The King and I and West Side Story. Finally, and possibly most importantly, Bob Fosse expanded the jazz dance by using isolated gestures, perhaps movement of just a finger or a hip with turned in knees and bent shoulders. Use of stage props such as canes, bowler hats and chairs became part of the dance. His original production of Chicago is a fine example of his contributions.
The mechanics of modern jazz dance steps include changing the weight from the right foot ball to the left with a stamp or a stamp-stamp. The cat walk includes crossing one leg across the other with the dancer’s back bent. A catch step is like the ball change except it is from one flat foot to the other with a stamp. In the jazz drag, the catwalk is done but with one leg dragging behind. A couple of other steps of interest are the jazz walk which is walking straight in plie but the shoulders are in opposition; then, of course, there is the moonwalk made famous by Michael Jackson. There are a number of other modern jazz dance steps, but in the interest of brevity we should discuss how the beginner should approach learning jazz dancing.
One of the first steps in learning is to make sure than you are in good shape physically. This includes appreciation for the value of the preliminary warm up with stretching exercises. This dance, perhaps more than most others, requires fluidity with a limber body. With the prevalence of the Internet, practice of jazz dance moves can be accomplished by watching instructional dance videos both online and from your local video store. Take classes, perhaps at your community center or at the local community college. Remember that good jazz classes burst with energy with the teacher introducing thorough warm ups, stretching exercises and isolation movements to prevent students from injury. The art of suspension is practiced, then some local dance routines. Teachers should end the class with a cool down period just like one gets at an exercise class at the local gym. And finally, attend performances of professional jazz dancers to observe what they do. Here is an activity that can become all consuming; let it!