Different Forms of Jazz Dancing

by Nancy Hayden
The Charleston was a trendy jazz dance in the 1920s.

The Charleston was a trendy jazz dance in the 1920s.

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Early jazz dance had its roots in African-American dance styles, many of which had African or Caribbean influences. Several of the trendy jazz steps being done by members of high society in the 1920s and1930s actually began as dances that slaves had done on plantations. Jazz is a broad term, which includes several dance styles. Jazz dance has evolved over the years, incorporating new dance trends along the way.

Early Partner Jazz Dances

As the sounds of jazz music exploded and filled nightclubs of the 1920s, revelers clamored for new dances to go along with the peppy tunes. Couples did jazz dances such as the jitterbug and the lindy hop, named for famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. The most well-known partner dance of the time was probably the Charleston. Couples held one hand while they stepped and kicked forward and back before spinning around and waving their hands. Other partner dances such as the cake walk had strong African roots, having been performed by the slaves on plantations in the South.

Early Solo Dances, Vaudeville and Mid-Century Jazz Styles

Early solo jazz dances encompassed many styles, including tap dancing. Performers on the vaudeville circuit began incorporating jazz moves into their acts in the 1910s, which helped solidify the style as theatrical performance. Vaudeville dancers mixed African-inspired moves with tap and loose-limbed, smooth steps and called it jazz dance. In the '20s and '30s, dance companies began featuring couples in their stage shows that performed jazz dances such as swing and the Charleston. In the '40s and '50s, exotic tropical styles became trendy, and Caribbean music and dance steps got mixed into jazz as well.

Fosse Era

By the 1970s, jazz dance had begun to define itself a bit more specifically. It still incorporated moves from influences throughout the world, but it split from other forms of dance such as tap, and each became its own form. Choreographers in the '70s brought the era of modern jazz to Broadway, perhaps none with more flash or impact than Bob Fosse. The choreographer of musicals such as "Cabaret," "The Pajama Game" and "Chicago" redefined jazz with his sharp, minimalist movements and dramatic poses.

Contemporary Jazz

Jazz dance still means many different things in the modern era. True to its roots, jazz is still an all-encompassing form that borrows moves from many cultures and styles. The form has held on to steps that formed its foundation, from the swing and Charleston era to sharp Fosse-esque moves, and also mixes in elements of ballet and tap. Contemporary dance styles such as hip-hop are the latest to blend into the jazz style. Television shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance" highlight the performers of the modern jazz era, with their urban-influenced and acrobatic moves.

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