A Brief History of Jazz Dance

Jazz Dance Class

Jazz dance is a type of modern dance that is influenced by the rhythms, sounds, and techniques of jazz music. This dance style can be very individualistic because it often focuses on showcasing a dancer’s abilities and athleticism. Most jazz dancers are well-skilled at improvisation.

Jazz dancing has quite a unique history that has been directly influenced by a number of other dance styles. Similar to jazz music, its origins are in African culture and slave traditions. During the 1800s, when African slaves were brought to United States, they were permitted to dance so they could maintain their health and fitness. The dancing continued once they arrived on the plantations.

By World War I, jazz dancing had become an established and popular style. Throughout the early 1900s, African-Americans lead the jazz dancing movement. From there it took ideas from tap, vaudeville, Minstrel shows, swing and even Broadway.

This type of dancing spread quickly to the American public and resulted in creating some of the most popular dances of that era, like the Charleston, Boogie Woogie, Swing, Lindy-Hop and Jitterbug. This dance form has heavily influenced Broadway choreography, as well as, Hollywood choreography. It has also inspired modern dance and ballet too. Because of this, the styles linked to jazz dancing are constantly changing.

Jack Cole

The most significant individual to influence this type of dancing was Jack Cole. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz dance.” He was a very talented choreographer and theatre director who was born in 1911. He created many ballet-based dance movements along with theatrical expression, that have become the cornerstones of this style of dance.  Cole’s unique style could not be mistaken for anything other than his.  This remarkable ability endures in the work of Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Peter Gennaro, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, Alvin Ailey, and countless other dancers and choreographers.


Bob Fosse

Another incredible dancer and choreographer who was influenced by Jack Cole, was Bob Fosse. He had considerable influence on the development of this dance style in the latter part of the twentieth century. As a young dancer, Fosse did not to comply with the rigid positions and techniques of ballet. This inspired him to create rolled shoulders, sideways shuffling, inward turned knees, sensuality and jazz hands in his choreography. Fosse’s distinctive style is also characterized by the use of canes, chairs and bowler hats. He was the choreographer for movies such as “Sweet Charity” and “Cabaret,” which really display his style.

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham is an African-American dancer and choreographer that mixed Caribbean traditional dance with contemporary jazz dancing. She was the very first American dancer to show these dance forms on a concert stage and she was also the first to establish a black dance company in the 1940s.

Jazz dance is known for being highly unpredictable and syncopated which stem from its African influences. The dances can be very dreamlike, slow and graceful. The movements can also be quite sharp, abrupt, and also include amazing leaps. For this reason, these dancers need to be extremely fit and flexible, and also be very attuned to the rhythms of the music. The styles of jazz dance are as wide-ranging as ever. Jazz dance continues to develop and ranges from sophisticated Broadway-inspired movements, ballet and even hip-hop. The core of jazz technique continues to be in the execution of kicks, leaps, turns, and fluid style.

About Shannon Thomas

Author Shannon Thomas is a dance instructor in Daytona Beach, FL. Shannon began dancing at the age of 4 at Debco School of Dance now known as Amanda's Dance Center. She studied ballet, tap, jazz, pointe, lyrical, acrobatics, modern, and musical theater. Shannon attended The Ann Lacy School of Dance and Arts Management at the prestigious Oklahoma City University. She has danced professionally for Shows in a Box Entertainment, The World of Magic and more. She is currently choreographing and teaching dance in the Daytona Beach area.
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