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Jazz dance is the performance dance technique and style that emerged in America in the early twentieth century.[1] Jazz dance began as an African American social dance that had roots in African slave dances. Over time, a clearly defined jazz genre emerged, changing from a street dance to a theatrical dance performed on stage due to the work by artists such as Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Eugene Louis Faccuito and Gus Giordano.



Congo Square
Charleston dance
Sweet Charity - Bob Fosse choreography

The origins of jazz dance can be traced back to the African ritual and celebratory dances from around the eighteenth century. These dances had an emphasis on rhythm, groundedness, and a connection to the earth. They were traditionally done to the beat of African drums such as djembes, ashikos, and bougarabous. Also, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade brought ten million Africans and their dances across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. By 1817 in New Orleans, city laws "restricted gatherings of enslaved people to Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, then called Place Publique".[2] The Sunday afternoon meetings often included the music and dance from the birthplaces of the slaves. The gatherings at Congo Square were shut down and brought back multiple times during the 1800s; when the meetings were shut down, they continued in secret.[citation needed]

In the early 1900s in New Orleans, the new music was combining elements of blues and ragtime. Although the term "jazz" first appeared in print in 1910, Jelly Roll Morton, a New Orleans pianist, claims that he invented jazz in 1902.[3] In 1917, jazz pianist Spencer Williams wrote a song called "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble" which inspired a jazz dance called the "shimmy". The shimmy is done by holding the body still "except for the shoulders, which are quickly alternated back and forth". In the same year, jazz music began to spread and became well known in Chicago and New York. This led to the jazz age, which is considered to be from 1920 to 1929. A few of the great musicians in the jazz age were Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Benny Goodman. The dances that emerged during this period were the Charleston and the Lindy hop. The Charleston is "characterized by its toes-in, heels-out twisting steps".[4] It can be done as a solo or with any number of people. The Lindy hop was a wild and spontaneous partner dance that was extremely rhythmically conscious. When the Great Depression began in October of 1929, many people turned to dance. Because of this, the Charleston and the Lindy hop are now considered to be under the umbrella term "swing dance" because they were most popular during the swing era of music (1935-1945).[citation needed]

The 1930s were also the start of jazz dance being combined into live musical theatre shows and movie musicals. A few of the prominent musical theatre choreographers were Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole and Michael Kidd. They created the dances for West Side Story, Gypsy, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and many more. These three choreographers and many of the other important figures in jazz dance choreographed and performed between 1930 and 1980. Jack Cole has his roots in modern and ballet, but he later became known as the father of jazz dance. His style is described as "hip, hard, and cool".[5] Gus Giordano is another key dancer/choreographer. Giordano founded his own company and established the Giordano technique. Another amazing jazz choreographer and dancer that founded a jazz technique was Lynn Simonson. Her technique, unsurprisingly, was called the Simonson technique. She emphasized organic movement with a connection to the music. Lastly, Bob Fosse developed his signature style of jazz dance. He, like some of the previously mentioned choreographers, worked in the musical theatre business. His brand was a "combination of vaudeville, striptease, magic shows, nightclubs, film and Broadway musicals, all based on social dance".[3]

Jazzercise class
Alvin Ailey dance - Revelations

Over the last 20 years, jazz has evolved and has been defined. There are now many subcategories of jazz that each have their own distinct qualities and characteristics. The style and choreographers that I have mentioned thus far are considered to be a part of ‘classic jazz.’ This jazz is currently seen in companies like Giordano Dance Chicago and Jazz Roots Dance Company. It is also primarily done to jazz music from the early to mid-1900s. Contemporary jazz became well known because of shows like So You Think You Can Dance. Mia Michaels' earlier work exemplifies this style. Some other companies and choreographers that create contemporary jazz dance are Sonya Tayeh, Mandy Moore, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Commercial jazz, which has been popular since the ‘80s, combines aspects of hip hop and jazz and is often done to pop music. This style can be seen in the music videos of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. Lastly, commercial jazz often includes more "tricks." Commercial jazz and contemporary jazz are both seen at dance competitions. Another variety of jazz is Latin jazz. "Maria Torres developed and popularized the fusion at Broadway Dance Center".[6] Latin jazz has an emphasis on the movement of hips and isolations. It can be seen in the films El Cantante and Dance With Me, as well as on TV dance shows.[6] Latin jazz incorporates "polyrhythms, angularity, [and] groundedness".[7] The last type of jazz is afro-jazz.[citation needed] The trailblazers of afro-jazz were Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.[citation needed] Afro-jazz companies include Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and Dallas Black Dance Theatre.[citation needed]

In 2013, a panel of six jazz-focused industry professionals came together at the World Dance Alliance conference to discuss the tenets of jazz dance, how the principles translate through the various styles of jazz dance, and how they offer mainstream appeal in today's culture.[7]

Notable directors, dancers, and choreographersEdit

  • Jack Cole, considered the father of jazz dance technique;[8] inspiration to Matt Mattox, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and many other choreographers; credited with popularizing the theatrical form of jazz dance with his great number of choreographic works on television and Broadway[9]
  • Katherine Dunham, anthropologist, choreographer, and pioneer in Black theatrical dance; introduced isolations jazz dance[10][11]
  • Gus Giordano, influential jazz dancer and choreographer based in Chicago, known for his clean, precise movement qualities[11]
  • Patsy Swayze, choreographer and dance instructor, combining jazz and ballet; founded the Houston Jazz Ballet Company and served as its director[12]
  • Bob Fosse, choreographer and film director, revolutionize jazz dance with his sexually suggestive movements. His choreographs are very recognizable and can be found in the musicals and films that he has choreographed, such as Cabaret and Chicago.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Mahoney, Billie. "Jazz Dance." The International Encyclopedia of Dance. : Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference. 2005. Date Accessed 20 Mar. 2018
  2. ^ "Congo Square: Mythology and Music - Stop 5 of 7 on the Urban Slavery and Everyday Resistance tour | New Orleans Historical". New Orleans Historical. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
  3. ^ a b Clayton, Audrey. "How Jazz Works". Retrieved 2018-06-26.
  4. ^ "Charleston | dance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
  5. ^ Levine, Debra. "Jack Cole (1911-1974)" (PDF). Dance Heritage Coalition.
  6. ^ a b "The Jazz Breakdown". Dance Spirit. 2014-04-01. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
  7. ^ a b "Discussing the Prime Tenets of Jazz Dance in Relationship to Current Practices." 3 Aug. 2013,
  8. ^ "Jack Cole: Jazz (documentary)". Dance Films Association. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  9. ^ "Jack Cole." Dance Heritage. Dance Heritage Coalition, n.d. Web. 1 May 2012.
  10. ^ "Katherine Dunham's Brilliant Legacy." The Art of Dance., 13 Dec 2009. Web. 1 May 2012 Archived 3 December 2012 at
  11. ^ a b White, Ariel. "Jazz Movers and Shakers." Dance Spirit. Sep. 2008: 101. Web.
  12. ^ Nelson, Valerie J. (15 September 2009). "Patrick Swayze dies at 57; star of the blockbuster films 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Ghost'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 September 2016.


  • Eliane Seguin, Histoire de la danse jazz, 2003, Editions CHIRON, ISBN 978-2-7027-0782-1, 281 pp
  • Jennifer Dunning, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, 1998, Da Capo Press, ISBN 978-0-306-80825-8, 468 pp
  • A. Peter Bailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey, 1995, Carol Pub. Group, ISBN 978-0-8065-1861-9, 183 pp
  • Margot L. Torbert, Teaching Dance Jazz, Margot Torbert, 2000, ISBN 978-0-9764071-0-2
  • Robert Cohan, The Dance Workshop, Gaia Books Ltd, 1989, ISBN 978-0-04-790010-5
  • Crease, Robert. Divine Frivolity: Hollywood Representations of the Lindy Hop, 1937-1942. In Representing Jazz. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Carter, Curtis. Improvisation in Dance. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2, 181-90. Accessed 24 April 2015.
  • A New Orleans Jazz History, 1895-1927. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana, 5 April 2015
  • Reid, Molly. New Orleans a Haven for Swing Dance Beginners, Professionals. The Times-Picayune, 21 January 2010