History of Jazz Dancing

Jazz dancing has a very unique history and has been influenced by many other dance styles and techniques. Like jazz music, its roots can be found in African and slave traditions. It then took inspiration from tap, Minstrel shows, vaudeville, swing and Broadway. The result is that the styles associated with jazz dancing constantly change.

When African slaves in the 1800s were travelling to America, they were allowed to dance in order to maintain their fitness. Such dances continued when they arrived at the plantations on which they worked in South America. During the early 1900s, this contributed to black Americans to lead the jazz movement. The movement quickly spread to the audience and public, and the result was that dances like the Charleston, Jitterbug, Boogie Woogie and Swing began to develop.

One of the greatest individual influencers of jazz dance as we know it today was Jack Cole. He was a choreographer and theatre director born in 1911, and is sometimes referred to as “the father of jazz dance”. He developed some of the ballet-based movements and theatrical expression which have become cornerstones in contemporary jazz dance.

A great name influenced by the work of Cole included Bob Fosse. He went on to have significant influence over the development of jazz dance in the second half of the twentieth century. His influence was born from Fosse’s inability to conform to the rigid positions of ballet as a young dancer. This led him to incorporate inward turned knees, hunched shoulders and burlesque-inspired sensuality into his choreography. His distinctive style is often characterised by his use of bowler hats, canes and chairs.

Contemporary jazz styles are as far reaching as ever. They continue to develop and range from elegant Broadway-inspired movements, ballet styles and even include hip-hop. However, the root of jazz technique remains in the mastery of leaps, turns, kicks and fluid style.

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