History of Jazz Dance

The style of dance known as jazz has its roots in the African culture imported by the slaves to America. Africans in their native countries danced to celebrate life; to express their cultural beliefs. On the journey to America, the slave traders wanted them to keep physically fit, so dancing was often allowed.

On the plantations in the South, the original steps were influenced by the European background of the owners. Out of the European jigs, the American culture and the movements of the African slaves came the jazz dance.

One of the first American professional dancers, John Durang, included “shuffles,” a movement of slave dancers, in his routine in 1789. Thomas Rice in 1828 did the “Jump Jim Crow,” a dance imitating slave dancers. The Minstrel show, popular from 1845 to 1900, was another big influence on the jazz dance.

In the early 1900s jazz dancing was closely related to tap dancing which was popular in the vaudeville shows of that era. Joe Frisco is called the first American “jazz dancer.” His shuffles, turns and camel walks were incorporated into his stand-up comedy act. With his stuttering voice, Derby hat and big cigar, he appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1918.

After World War I a social revolution occurred in the United States. The “flapper” with her short skirts, rolled stockings and dropped waist dresses was scandalizing the older generations by her dancing in the speakeasies and cabarets. Jazz was the kind of music that suited this generation. Different dance types emerged during this time, such as the fox-trot, Charleston, shimmy and black bottom. Later is seen the jitterbug, Boogie Woogie and swing, all owing their development to jazz.

Jazz dance has been constantly evolving since the 1920s along with the changes in popular culture. A great film and theatre choreographer, Bob Fosse, is credited with the development of modern jazz dance, as exemplified in such shows as “Chicago” and “Cabaret.”

Individuality and improvisation, required in jazz dance, are components that made it alluring to all dancers through the years. There are no limits to the creativity available to jazz dancers. It can go from peppy and bright to flowing and soulful. Jazz dance teachers often teach classical ballet first to their students so they can develop the strength and agility to perform properly the leaps, turns and kicks that are prevalent in jazz.

One of the essential features in true jazz is the tendency to stress the second and fourth or weak beats of the bar as opposed to the stress of the first and third in traditional music. Another feature is the syncopation of the rhythm.

No matter what the contemporary trends are in dance, jazz remains a consistent favorite.