Every dance style has a history, a tradition, and a long list of dancers and choreographers that have influenced and molded the way we see that style today. Jazz, Tap, and Hip-Hop dance have some of the most layered histories when it comes to the cross-cultural codification of the technique. Meaning, the ‘new style’ we see throughout the dance world today has evolved so much from their original sources (more often than not, this is West African dance and Afro-diasporic dance traditions), that much of the aesthetic of the original dance form has been lost in modern society.
The move to return to the roots of these dance styles is not just about honoring history, although that is an extremely important part of the movement. But the main reason these instructors and choreographers are focusing on the origins and evolution of their movement styles is to understand that the context and culture of dancing is often even more important than the specific movements themselves. Hip-hop is an energy, a community, an atmosphere of dance. Jazz dance is the humanity and groundedness of complex rhythms.
Take a look at how Durden, George, and many more are educating dancers, dance lovers, and organizations across the world on the true roots of these dance styles. And be sure to remember their names as we’re sure they will continue to mold and shape the dance world for years to come.
Moncell Durden describes himself as a dance educator, choreographer, ethnographer, embodied historian, and author who specializes in pedagogical practices that prove cultural and historical context in the morphology of Afro-kinetic memory.’ Also a professor at USC Kaufman, Durden teaches dance classes and dance theory and is an expert in authentic jazz, locking, house, hip-hop, and party dances.
Durden has created many different avenues through which the public can educate themselves on Afro-diasporic dance traditions. He created a documentary, Everything Remains Raw, which dives into the evolution and globalization of hip-hop and the aesthetics and cultural influences demonstrated in America’s Afro-Latin dance communities. He also created an organization called Intangible Roots which offers a course where you can participate in the preservation and education of Afro-diasporic social dance formations through lectures and film. He has even authored a book, Beginning Hip Hop Dance as part of the Human Kinetics’ Interactive Dance Series.
P.S. Overwhelmed by the number of titles Durden listed to describe his artistic career? Many of the dancer educators on this list describe themselves with a similar word count! That’s because change-makers and people that are culturally influential often exist between descriptors, especially when they are artists of color. Each one of these artists is more complex and inspiring than we have the space to write about, so check out their linked websites to learn more about them and their work.
Saleemah E. Knight
Saleemah E. Knight is a founding faculty member at the University of South Carolina’s Glorya Kaufman School of dance, where she teaches jazz dance technique and theory courses. Knight was featured as a dance historian and jazz dancer on the award-winning documentary UPROOTED: The Journey of Jazz Dance. Knight has had an extremely varied career as a dancer, choreographer, educator, and philanthropist. She offers outreach dance classes to inner-city youth, teaches guest classes all over the country, including at CLI Studios, and has been featured in Dance Teacher Magazine as a leading professor of jazz dance.
Knight’s experience in the television, film, concert, and commercial worlds with artists and productions of all kinds (Beyoncé, The Lion King Broadway Musical, The Harlem Nutcracker, and Dancing With the Stars to name a few!) means that she has a rich and varied dance career from which she pulls her knowledge from. As an educator, she works to center the integrity of what “true jazz” is considered to be with its many iterations today in the commercial and concert worlds.
Camille A. Brown
Camille A. Brown is an award-winning choreographer, dancer, and artistic director of her own dance company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers. Brown is known for her committed storytelling that is sewn into everything she produces. She blends theatre and dance with a commitment to the oft-overlooked rivulets of truth that shape African American history and dance. When she’s not in the choreographer or director’s seat, she is sharing her spotlight with her community, producing Instagram lecture series on the genealogy of Black social dance (#socialdanceforsocialchange) and expanding initiatives for EVERY BODY MOVE, the community engagement program of her own dance company.
But, Brown does not limit herself to seminars and didactic discussions. By being the first black woman to direct and choreograph a Broadway show in over six decades, she developed the path for future artists and audiences to experience the richness of Black dance and life through the generous and exacting lens that she sees it through. With her deeply creative work, she can “teach” the audience on a deeper level, inviting them to feel the history and the humanity present in all of her work. The show she is directing is Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. This show featuring female dancers is set to open on Broadway on April 20th for a limited 20-week engagement.
Melanie George is a dancer and choreographer known for her work in dance dramaturgy and her Neo-Jazz creations. To Melanie, Neo-Jazz is a historically-informed contemporary jazz technique. Essentially, it is jazz that is performed in a modern dance performance context but that centers the West African lineage of jazz dance through not only the physical elements but the communal and collaborative elements as well. Her hopes in teaching and choreographing work in this style is to deconstruct traditional hierarchies in dance and to bring movement, particularly jazz dance movement, home to its roots.
In 2012, Melanie founded her project Jazz is…Dance Project which now operates two programs: The Woodshed, an artist retreat program for choreographers and scholars of jazz dance, and Jazz Dance Direct, a resource hub for information about jazz dance. As a dramaturg, she has worked extensively with many organizations, including the International Association of Blacks in Dance, Gibney Dance, Lumberyard, and Urban Bush Women’s Choreographic Center. She also serves as an Associate Curator and Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow. Needless to say, her reach is far and wide, and she continues to educate organizations and companies on the importance of dance dramaturgy.
Nina Flagg is a dancer, choreographer, and pedagogue. She studied sociology with a specialization in communications at UCLA, and her senior year started teaching at Debbie Allen Dance Academy. She has worked with numerous dance companies including Alvin Ailey Dance Company and recently was on faculty at Cal Arts to teach hip-hop technique, composition, and lab classes. Nina continues to choreograph for television and concert dance and works on creating curricular strategies for equitable opportunities in dance education and performance.
We recently interviewed Nina Flagg for our Movement Speaks series, where she spoke about her biggest inspirations and her relationship to the culture of hip hop*. Rennie Harris deeply inspires Nina because she credits Harris as being the first hip-hop choreographer to bring hip-hop dance to a concert setting and to usher it into an abstract art form as well as bring it to the international stage. In her interview, she says that one of the deepest forms of research that you can do is in the body, because “the body holds history.”
Inspired by these artists and educators? Us too! Turn your inspiration into action and start your body research here online at CLI Studios.