2 dancers popping their right heel and pointing to the side

What is Jazz Dance?

A popular catch-all for a variety of specific dances and styles that have been evolving through the 20th century, jazz dance is a ubiquitous name in the world of dance today. But what is it exactly? Here’s a quick primer.

Beginnings

Jazz dance grew out of–what else–jazz music. From its origins in West Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, and the American South, jazz music has always been first and foremost a deeply important expression of the black american experience. New Orleans’ Congo Square is often credited as being the birthplace of jazz, as it was the place where enslaved and free black people were allowed to legally gather on Sundays in the days of French and Spanish colonial rule. There they set up markets, cooked and sold food, and most importantly, played music and danced to rhythms that their ancestors had carried with them in bondage from Africa. From this starting point came the beginnings of all of the music which we know today as blues, jazz, and gospel, as well as the dances which came to being as physical expressions of that music.

The Music is the Motion

group of saxophone players

By the 1930s jazz had established itself as a prominent musical force, from ballrooms to bar-rooms across the United States and abroad. The first early rolicking piano sounds of ragtime had evolved into fully arranged pieces performed by combos and jazz orchestras. With the sophisticated sounds came new moves like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop, which focused on a mixture of wild and exciting new moves with a strict attention to rhythm. These new styles evoked sophisticated and popular partnered dances like the waltz and the tango, but were reimagined with the new jazz rhythms into swing dancing, which soon became an international sensation. African american dancer Josephine Baker took jazz dancing to the stages of France and became a sensation and cultural ambassador for American jazz dance and music. Meanwhile stateside, a more ballet and tap-influenced style of jazz dance and swing was captivating Hollywood, with stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performing their choreographed jaunts in brand new productions full of Tinseltown grandiosity.

Many Styles and Genres

dancer saleemah knight teaching a contemporary jazz class at cli studios

When we say “jazz dance,” we’re not necessarily just talking about swing. We might be talking about many different types of dance that all fall under the umbrella of jazz dance today. For instance, commercial jazz dance refers to the highly choreographed style that arose with the advent of the music video and the rise of MTV in the 1980s. Think about the music video for Paula Abdul’s smash hit Straight Up. Or we could be talking about a modern jazz dance production, which could have theatrical notes and choreography that reminds us of contemporary dance. There’s also afro jazz, which is blended with the music of the Caribbean and Brazil, or jazz funk, which takes its rhythms from funk and hip hop and usually features a strong back beat. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to spend any amount of time surfing the web for music videos or watching reality dance shows on television without encountering some form of jazz dance. It’s everywhere!

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