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American Jazz Dance: A definition/explanation/summary in response to What the Heck is Jazz Dance?
By JamesRobeyDance
On Mon Oct 18, 2010 02:51 PM

The Roots of American Jazz Dance

Although jazz dance is considered an art form that sprouted from American soil, its roots (like those of jazz music) reach back to Africa. The syncopated, dynamic percussive rhythms, grounded and earthy posture, and movement generating from the solar plexus that are trademarks of jazz dance have their beginning in African tribal music and dance.

African slaves transported to American soil brought with them a vibrant form of music and dance. Sharply contrasted to the European dances of the upper class, the African dances and rhythms were embraced by common people. Drawing from the African-American experience, jazz dance originated as a social dance form that accompanied the popular music of its time -- jazz music.

While jazz dance has evolved since the early 1900’s, it remains linked to these traditions by being closely connected to the social dance forms of the day, using a low center of gravity, engaging dynamic rhythms and accents, and using the solar plexus as the source of its power. Three main branches of jazz dance are Social Jazz Dance, Musical Theater Jazz Dance, and Concert Jazz Dance.

Social Jazz Dance

Jazz dance originated as a social dance form that accompanied the popular music of its time -- jazz music. The 1920’s saw popular dance (jazz dance) crazes erupt with dances such as the Charleston. In the 1930’s it was the jitterbug and boogie woogie. The 1940’s saw the popular rise of Lindy Hop or Swing that enjoyed revitalization in the 1990’s. The tradition of jazz dance drawing from social dance forms continues through every generation.

Social Jazz Dance in the new millennium is predominated by hip hop. Break dance from the late 1970’s has come back into fashion within the hip hop culture. Social dance also includes funk and street jazz forms that have taken the flavor of hip-hop steps and brought them into suburban and rural dance studios. Funk and street jazz combine basic hip hop steps with walking, head rolls, posing, and some technical jazz elements. Frank Hatchett (NYC) and Joe Tremaine (LA) were key figures in the popularity of this style in the 1980’s. Trends in the Social Jazz Dance branch have included the Charleston, Jitterbug, Boogie Woogie, Swing (Lindy Hop), Rock-n-Roll (think Happy Days), the Twist, Disco, Break Dance, Salsa, and Hip Hop.

Musical Theatre Jazz Dance

As social dance steps found their way into minstrel shows, vaudeville, and eventually to Broadway and Hollywood, the musical theatre branch of the jazz dance tree was established. With trained musical theatre dancers learning the social jazz steps, the steps merged with ballet and modern techniques.

Musical Theatre Jazz Dance today appears in musicals (on and off Broadway), dinner theaters, cruise ships, theme parks, television, and movies. This branch of the jazz dance tree developed from the work of such figures as Jack Cole, Matt Mattox, Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Jerome Robbins, Luigi, Gus Giordano, Michael Bennett, and Chet Walker.

Concert Jazz Dance

Aided by the cross-fertilization of social jazz dance steps with ballet and modern, Concert Jazz Dance developed out of a desire for jazz dance to be respected alone on the stage as an art form. The work of Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty provided the initial ground for this branch to grow in the 1950’s.

In the new millennium, several jazz dance companies exist and are reaching new and growing audiences with their athletic, dynamic, and vital choreography. Companies and choreographers in the Concert Jazz Dance tradition include Billy Siegenfeld, Mia Michaels, Danny Buraczeski, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Company, Savage Dance, Odyssey Dance Theatre, Giordano Dance Company, and Joseph Holmes Dance Company. Regardless of the branch of jazz dance, all jazz dance share certain characteristics: dynamic rhythm, direct expressiveness, improvisation, and individual style.

Dynamic Rhythm

From jazz dance’s early connection to jazz music (and African tribal music), the use of syncopated and dynamic rhythms is a core aspect of jazz dance. The percussive rhythm of jazz music has infiltrated and influenced all popular forms of music from rhythm and blues, rock, pop, and hip hop. Although strict syncopation is not found in these forms, its influence remains in the form of emphasis on the upbeat and sharp accents.

For the jazz dancer, special attention is given to rhythm, dynamics, and attack. Engaging a percussive quality of movement is necessary for the jazz dancer. Even slow pieces (lyrical jazz) will have pockets of propulsive movements and accents. Jazz dancers attempt to internalize and drive a rhythm with the body rather than just following the music. Whatever style of jazz dance, whether it is classical, contemporary, musical theatre, or hip hop, this dynamic approach to rhythm lies at the heart of jazz dancing.

Direct Expressiveness

Unlike the other-worldliness of ballet and classical music, jazz dance, like the music it derives its name from, is directly expressive. Jazz dance derives from the common person and speaks directly to their lives. Therefore, jazz dancers are strong performers and entertainers. Where ballet and modern dance are to be observed from a distance, jazz dancers work for a direct connection with the audience. There is no wall between the dancer and audience member.

These skills develop in jazz dance students by the learning of combinations. Combinations are used to help give dancers in-class experience with which to strengthen performance skills. Dancers are split into groups to watch and perform for one another. Often, stronger performers are picked to perform the combination to serve as an example of what the teacher wants to see. In addition, the low center of gravity a jazz dancer uses gives an earthy, soulful quality that speaks directly to the common person.


Improvisation and free styling are integral parts of jazz music and jazz dance. In fact, early jazz dance pioneers like Matt Mattox called their dance form Free Style dance. In jazz dance, improvisation skills make the dancer a stronger performer who can adapt to unexpected situations and express themselves freely.

Improvisation is often included during the combination at the end of a class. Dancers are given certain counts with which to free style or improvise. Directions can be specific or they can be vague to allow for greater freedom. Young students may be given a structured combination for four counts of eight followed by two counts of eight to express themselves anyway they feel fits the music and then continuing with a repeat of the structured combination. As they get more experienced, directions can include having four counts of eight improvise an entrance from the sides before starting the structured combination.

Individual Style

Just as jazz music allows for each musician to be a complete individual, Jazz dance also teaches dancers to find and develop their own style or flavor. Jazz dance as a tradition is not interested in producing synchronized robots (with the exception of dance lines like the Radio City Hall Rockette’s). This tradition of highly individualized performance in jazz dance is the driving force behind its continued evolution.

In jazz class, dancers learn versatility by being asked to perform the combinations in both the teacher’s style and in their own style. Teachers encourage jazz dance students to explore their individual style by including segments of free dance or improvisation in combinations. The teacher balances the specificity of technical execution with the opportunity for self expression in the classroom.


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