The Foundations of Jazz Dance: Correcting American Movement History


Saleemah E. Knight, B.F.A., M.F.A.
Choreographer/ Instructor/ Performer
Professor of Dance and Dance Studies

Re-routing Conversations on Jazz Dance

It is a well-known fact that informed jazz dance educators of the 21st century are taking on the enormous task of rerouting conversations on jazz dance, particularly as relates to its American inception, cultural values, roots and traditions. For those in higher academia who have dove beyond the surface to uncover its true foundations, this task has been and continues to be at the forefront of jazz dance education. I myself as a prominent university professor, choreographer and jazz dance expert, bear the burden of undoing years of misinformation drilled into our young dancers and artists prior to their collegiate education.

In hegemonic culture it has been customary to view jazz dance as a genre that primarily teaches young dancers how to have “sass”, “attitude” and execute high energy virtuosic tasks aka “tricks” (typically embedded amongst ferocious pirouette sequences and battements) which celebrate a sense of verticality and linearity in the torso, arms and legs, emanating from Europeanist practices in Ballet. I purposely use Ballet terminology such as “pirouette” and “battement” to highlight the ease with which terms, inherent to Ballet, have been adopted into jazz dance however we can easily replace these terms with the words “turns” and “high kicks” to point out that jazz is a social form, originally rooted in vernacular terminology. This derivative of jazz dance manifests in performances on competition stages, television shows, movies, musicals, commercials and a multitude of social media platforms. The formula appears to be the secret sauce to “good” jazz dancing and in most cases it is indeed good dancing, however devoid of the movement aesthetics that we will discuss within this blog, it is not jazz. It is important to note that jazz dance is not purely commercial, as it has a long history within the concert dance continuum and most notably has roots in Black vernacular dances, which prioritize grounded-ness, footwork, improvisation and a poly-lingual non-vertical body. It is also important to note that the commercialization and repackaging of jazz dance hinges on a deeper-rooted issue with the re-telling of American history, which often places Africanist traditions and Black cultural markers at the periphery, in this case to highlight White male innovators commonly known as the “Fathers of Jazz Dance” such as Jack Cole, Matt Mattox, Eugene Faccuito aka “Luigi”, Bob Fosse, Gus Giordano and many others that have risen as the face of jazz dance during the 20th and early 21st centuries. I will also add that the naming of Matt Mattox’s technique as jazz is widely debated.

If we replace this narrative surrounding the “Fathers of Jazz Dance” with the true original creators and innovators, which includes female identifying bodies and Black American artists of the early 20th century such as Al Minns, Leon James, Pepsi Bethel, George Snowden, Katherine Dunham, Consuela Harris, Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, Billy Ricker and the like, how would the trajectory of jazz dance as a performance practice and area of movement research permeate new corners of the dance world? How would this information reroute jazz dance education in a way that is truthful and spirited in correct movement traditions and cultural practices? In this blog, I invite you to re-imagine your knowledge and embodiment of jazz dance and simultaneously recognize the power of giving credit to the proper cultural group when discussing the evolution of dance, in this case the evolution of America’s most beloved form, jazz dance.

Uncovering the History of Jazz Dance

The depths to which I can go on this topic are infinite, however in this short blog I intend to highlight the most important things you should know about jazz dance, when beginning to uncover its true history, which may require you to separate from what it has previously meant to you as a dancer, choreographer or technique instructor. Firstly, I invite you to start at the foundational concepts that all dance is a reflection of the culture in which it was created, and that dance has power. Cultures around the world have movement practices that are indigenous to their geographical location, religious practices and socialization. As an anthropologist studies the movement of a group of people over time, it is easy to conceive how dance movement can reveal which values and practices of a group of people have remained cornerstones of their movement identity. For example, dances from the Dominican Republic, such as Bachata were created with a sinking movement of the knees and feet and a break in the hips that replicates the pressure placed against the sand in tropical terrains, just as the emancipation of the torso in jazz (although already prominent within African diaspora movement traditions pre-enslavement) became even more important as these bodies needed a source for corporeal release and emancipation in a heavily racist and discriminatory American climate. Verticality in Ballet stems from Europeanist values in Christianity which prioritize movement toward the heavens or God and was the catalyst for the creation of the pointe shoe, which was perceived to allow dancers to become even closer to that sense of verticality. Dance is so powerful that it was banned for African people in the U.S. as well as First Nations People (commonly known as Native Americans) to participate in their own dances, as the dances solidified a cultural union and identity that upheld their values of community, sharing, spoken word, and call and response practices, all of which were a perceived threat to the rules of British colonialism and the Whitewashing of American civilization.

With this information in mind, I’d like to point out that removing the cultural creators of a dance form, whether it be in written history or teaching practice, inherently changes the physicality of a form as the originators of the form are the gatekeepers of the embodied movement knowledge, which can only be exchanged through inherent and deeply ingrained cultural interaction and blood memory. This however is not to say that we cannot share in each other’s cultural practices by partaking in and teaching forms that are not traditionally a part of our own cultural identity, however it is to say that it is important to verbally give credit where credit is due in terms of teaching practices and to specifically include Black bodies amongst the hiring of jazz dance instructors, choreographers and performers to keep the movement tradition authentic to its ancestral ties. A young dancer’s studio practice should start with the premise that our oldest jazz dances have roots in West African movement traditions such as, yet are not limited to: the Nigerian Shika Dances, the King Sailor Dances of Trinidad and African Juba (Gioube) “ring shout” dances, which all trace back to early social dance traditions that matriculated to the U.S. from Africa and the West Indies during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Dancers should also know that these dances started long before the enslavement of African and Black bodies.

The movement aesthetics of African diaspora dances aka Black dance practices, identify as a body that has a strong sense of improvisation as intellectual source material, a close relationship to the floor aka grounded-ness that prioritizes bent knees and footwork, a subdued nature in performance which juxtaposes the high energy that the body exudes in execution of the form, a poly-lingual body that has multiple centers for the constant obtainment and release of new movement or thought, and a sense of attack that has dynamic impact. If we look at the movement aesthetics, it is easy to see how dances under the jazz umbrella such as Swing and Lindy Hop, which originated out of the Harlem Renaissance era, and were heavily performed by Black dancers taking the floor in the world-famous Savoy Ballroom, exude all of these characteristics. You will also see that the “jazz” that we are teaching abundantly in studios across the U.S. does not.

Lastly, when looking at the true foundations of jazz dance, the relationship between jazz, tap and hip hop may appear similar in nature. This is inherent as the primary aesthetic values and movement principles come from the same cultural origin/group of people. Other influences in jazz also include Afro-Latin or Latin-X movement principles, while tap dance incorporates Irish dance traditions. The experienced and properly informed dancer will over time easily spot the differences between jazz, tap and hip hop in terms of execution and style.

Below I invite you to watch the following clips to help you on your jazz dance education journey. Please challenge yourself to identify where you see the movement aesthetics that I have emboldened within this blog occurring within the dances highlighted below. I hope this information has been enlightening and helpful to your future practices in jazz dance. I encourage you to continue your own research in the studio, but more importantly in social spaces within Black communities where the fruits of this glorious dance form truly permeate and thrive.

*Saleemah E. Knight is a Professor of Dance and an original founding faculty at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from the University of California, Irvine and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance from the University of Arizona. She performed as a featured dancer in The Lion King Broadway Musical, has appeared with Beyoncé on The Billboard Music Awards and made guest appearances as a performer on The Daytime Emmys, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and ABC’s Live! With Regis and Kelly. She was also a youth protégé of internationally known concert dance choreographer Donald Byrd as well as Dayton Contemporary Dance Company where she danced the works of renowned choreographers Bill T. Jones and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. She also would like to credit the research of Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Gerald Jonas, Marshall and Jean Sterns and Joann Kealiinohomoku in addition to her own original research and contributions to the field of dance studies.

Jazz Reference Videos

Early 20th Century Jazz Dance and Movement Creators

Frankie Manning and the Congeroos
(From the movie, “Killer Diller”, 1948)

Consuela Harris
(From the movie “Swing”, 1938)

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
(From the movie, “Hellzapoppin”, 1941. Featured dancers include Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, Billy Ricker, Al Minns and Leon James)

Katherine Dunham Jazz Dancers
(From the movie, “Stormy Weather”, 1943. Also featured, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, and Lena Horne.)

Jazz Improvisation with Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker
(From the movie, “Crazy House”, 1930.)

21st Century Jazz Dance and Movement Creators:

Norah, Yarah and Rosa
(Big Chief Part 2- Professor Longhair)

Willis, Darren and Fleur
(Can’t Stand It- James Brown)

7 Essential Jazz Moves Every Dancer Should Know
(Saleemah E. Knight- CLI Studios)

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