Apprendere la storia della danza jazz, del Lindy hop e delle discipline ad esso correlate, è fondamentale per poter riconoscere, accettare e rispettare la tradizione. Sapere da dove provengono il tap, il solo jazz, lo shag …, quali sono le loro origini e come si sono modificati nel tempo, è nostra responsabilità come ballerini e amanti della cultura jazz.
Quando parliamo di “danza jazz”, dobbiamo tenere presente il contesto storico culturale, dobbiamo parlare di ballerini di colore e dunque dell’influenza africana che gioca un ruolo essenziale nello sviluppo di questa è inammissibile parlare del bagaglio culturale Americano, che si tratti di musica o di danza jazz senza riconoscere le origini Africane che entrambe possiedono.
È inammissibile parlare del bagaglio culturale americano, che si tratti di musica o di danza jazz senza riconoscere le origini africane che entrambe possiedono.
Nascita della danza Jazz
La parola Jazz è talmente ampia e plurivalente che una semplice definizione non sarebbe sufficiente a descriverla. Quando apriamo la parentesi del Jazz, ci addentriamo in un campo complesso seppur affascinante!
Le origini del Jazz sono Africane, piu precisamente, dell’Africa occidentale
Agli albori del 17esimo comincia la storia della schiavitù che ha visto protagonista un enorme numero di persone dell’Africa occidentale, caricati su barche e portati nel continente americano, dove avrebbero lavorato per i proprietari di piantagioni e coltivazioni.
Durante il periodo della schiavitù la danza tradizionale africana, con il suo simbolismo,il suo legame con la spiritualità e l'unicità dell’individuo pongono le basi per la nascita della cultura vernacolare Afro-Americana. Ecco perché è importante riconoscere la connessione tra le danza tradizionali africane (più precisamente dell'Africa occidentale) e la storia della danza jazz.
Ê nelle piantagioni del Nord e sud America che si è fatta la storia della danza jazz vernacolare! Balli come “Buzzard lope”, “Turkey trot”, ricchi di riferimenti al mondo animale ne sono un chiaro esempio.
I proprietari delle piantagioni, osservando queste danze, ne sono accattivati : l’energia, la vitalità, il dinamismo! Gli schiavi, d’altro canto, guardano ai balli da sala dei loro padroni con scherno e derisione: li scimmiottano, imitandoli in quello che sarà noto come il “Cakewalk”.
Così facendo adottano la verticalità della postura, l’idea della posizione chiusa del ballo di coppia e ponendo un primo fondamento per la nascita dei balli a noi noti come il Charleston, il Lindy hop, ed altre discipline swing.
La danza jazz si sviluppa in terribili circostanze, in condizioni di restrizioni, proibizioni e limitazioni in termini di espressione culturale attraverso la danza e la musica.
Tuttavia è lo stesso, per quanto orribile contesto, ad offrire il terreno fertile (che fu l’America) per l’incontro tra molteplici culture e tradizioni : da un lato quella Africana, dall’altra quella Americana ed Europea.
Per poter capire quali sono gli aspetti di influenza africana nella storia della danza jazz, dobbiamo ricercare e studiare quelli che sono i suoi elementi essenziali e i suoi fondamenti.
Caratteristiche della danza africana nera
Le sei caratteristiche della danza vernacolare Afro-Americana sono il ritmo, l’improvvisazione, controllo, angolarità, asimmetria e dinamismo
-“Steppin’ on the Blues”, p. 32
Lo stile Afro americano trova la sua migliore espressione e manifestazione, proprio nella danza! Andiamo ad osservare tali caratteristiche più da vicino
Il ritmo è l’architettura dell’essere, la dinamica più interna che dá forma all’essere, la espressione più pura della forza vitale
-Thompson “African art in motion”, p.13 – 14
La danza Afro americana si basa sul ritmo! E una danza orientata alla pulsazione della musica ; per questo motivo ballare sul beat è fondamentale. Per quanto tu sia capace di mostrare le tue migliori movenze, se balli fuori dal beat, è come se non stessi sentendo realmente la musica, come se non la stessi vivendo da dentro.
L’idea è di fluire con la musica, salire sul “treno” del beat, e quando lo senti realmente, allora è il momento di adornarlo con i tuoi passi !
Essere in grado di aggiungere qualcosa di nuovo alla musica, è il cuore pulsante della danza jazz.
I bravi ballerini che praticano questo sile, non permettono che i loro corpo si abbandoni ad un movimento incontrollato. Quando sopraggiunge il break musicale, non si tratta di "lasciarsi andare", ma piuttosto di applicare una vera e propria tecnologia che prevede una stilizzazione del movimento. La perdita del controllo e di una apparenza fresca e rilassata li porrebbe fuori dalla tradizione della danza vernacolare jazz
-Steppin' on the blues, pg 34
La danza jazz e vernacolare sono piuttosto espressive e possono sembrare a prima vista “”frenetiche” e prive di controllo corporale, specialmente se poste a confronto con gli stili ”di danza europei (si pensi per esempio alla rigidezza della danza classica)
Quando si balla si può finire fuori dalla musica, si può perdere il ritmo, l'energia, la forma... ma attenzione a non lasciarci “schiacciare” dal ballo stesso!
Qui interviene un importante ed affascinante concetto che è l'estetica del “bello”. Mantenendo un'espressione rilassata ed un atteggiamento fresco e tranquillo, riusciamo a comunicare un’idea di leggerezza, controllo e dominio de nostri movimenti, i quali appariranno facili e senza sforzo!
Nel libro African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry, p.107, l’asimmetria è considerata non soltanto in riferimento al movimento del corpo, ma come relazione fra la danza ed il ballerino stesso. Per quanto i ballerini possano eseguire una serie furiosa di passi, mosse e figure, non arrivano mai a perdere l'asimmetrica giustapposizione tra calma, equilibrio e controllo.
Spiegato brevemente,è come se ogni posizione del corpo disegnasse un nuovo angolo. Concetto questo piuttosto difficile da comprendere ed applicare per coloro che hanno una formazione in discipline di danza europee, dove le transizioni tra i movimenti sono più fluide e le differenze tra una posa e l'altra quasi impercettibili.
Nelle danze tradizionali dell’Africa occidentale ed altre derivate, le transizioni al contrario sono più drammatiche, quasi geometriche
Per poter integrare questo concetto di “angolarità” nelle discipline di danza jazz e in particolare, nel solo jazz, si può pensare ad un approccio di tipo “controllo-tensione-relax.
Ad una prospettiva più ampia, si ritrova il concetto di angolarità in tutta la cultura Africana: la comunicazione non verbale della cultura e tradizione nera è ricca di “angoli”.
A tal proposito cito Rex Stewart, un cornettista jazz americano, il quale parlando Louis Armstrong in “Jazz masters of 30s” descrive il suo stile con una “ camminata a grandi passi, e il capo leggermente piegato in un angolo come a dire: Ehi attento! non mi fare arrabbiare! (The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, p. 233)
Vediamo dunque che l’importanza del ritmo, le sue forme asimmetriche e l’angolarita del solo jazz, sono di influenza prettamente Africana
Personalmente, ciò che mi ha condotto al solo jazz e al Charleston è proprio questa caratteristica: l’improvvisazione. Quando ero più giovane ricordo aver detto a me stessa: Ksenia questo è quello che vuoi fare, questa è pura liberazione! Effettivamente, le danze nere, rispetto alla loro controparte europea offrono una libertà di espressione molto più vasta!
Come definire l’improvvisazione? Improvvisazione è creazione sul momento! e`un po’ come giocare, sperimentare con le idee. Mentre il ballerino improvvisa ci si aspetta che giochi ad estendere la tradizione al limite di qualcosa di nuovo che egli stesso apporta nel suo processo creativo.
Per me, che ho un background nel mondo dei balli da sala, l’impossibilità di scegliere ciò che realmente sentivo di esprimere nel momento, era fonte di grande frustrazione.
Ricordo il mio maestro riprendermi perché non eseguivo correttamente il passo previsto dalla coreografia…
L’idea di poter decidere liberamente, giocare con la pulsazione della musica ed esprimere ciò che la musica detta, per me è pure Gioia! Il jazz e le danze nere in generale sono realmente un processo di creazione continua ed invenzione.
L’improvvisazione si compone di gioco, curiosità, audacia; porta ad una profonda connessione che si innesca tra se stessi, il proprio corpo e la musica, e quando percepisci di averlo fatto correttamente, la soddisfazione ed il senso di pienezza sono immediati!
L’estetica Afroamericana incoraggia la capacitá individuale di sperimentare, esplorare, provare nel processo della composizione e creazione. Non solo si ammira l’originalitá del ballerino, ma la si aspetta! L’artista deve poi essere capace di trovare l’equilibrio tra ciò che reputa egli stesso come bello e valido e ciò che invece lo spettatore considera tale! Tutto sta nell’aggiungere qualcosa alla tradizione senza perdere la connessione con essa
-Steppin’ on the blues, pg 35
In questo tipo di danza, ciò che realmente si apprezza è la capacità di espressione individuale: ci si aspetta di vedere emergere la personalità del singolo ballerino piuttosto che la “copia” di un qualsiasi altro performer. Anche quando a ballare e`un gruppo di ballerini, e`sempre l'individuo che spicca per la sua essenza. In questo modo si favorisce la diversità nell'unità.
Elementi fondamentali del Solo Jazz
Come abbiamo detto, le origini del jazz sono radicate nelle danze tradizionali dell’Africa occidentale. Molti elementi tra i quali la tecnica di base di tale disciplina sono praticamente opposti alla tradizione europea.
Andiamo dunque ad esaminare i fondamenti dal solo jazz e delle danze swing in generale: quali la postura del corpo, il feeling del “bounce” o “pulse”, il “contro tempo” il concetto di “swinging 8th note” e il ritmo sincopato.
Prima di tutto definiamo ed identifichiamo il centro a partira dal quale il movimento si origina. Nelle danze europee quali i balli da sala, il ballet, ed altre danze folkloriche, il punto focale e`il petto. Quando si ballano i suddetti stili, si avverte una tendenza a crescere verso l’alto, adottando una postura pressoché verticale , dovuta alla colonna eretta e agli arti rigidi. Si ricercano linee, geometrie simmetriche e la bellezza nella forma, mentre la traiettoria principale che il movimento disegna è verso l’alto.
Al contrario nelle danze di derivazione ed influenza africana si lavora e gioca con l’effetto della gravità, per cui l’intenzione, nonché gli accenti del movimento, sono diretti verso il basso! Ovviamente, questo si ripercuote sulla postura del corpo.
dance with bended knees, lest you be taken for a corpse”, ovvero, balla con le ginocchia piegate, altrimenti verrai scambiato per un morto!
-proverbio del Congo
Nella tradizioni di molte danze africane e in particolare dell’africa occidentale, avere le articolazioni piegate è segno di vitalità ed energia, mentre i fianchi, gomiti e gambe tese, rappresentano rigidezza e dunque, morte.
le ginocchia piegate, le forme angoleggianti dei corpi(di ballerini neri), erano in netto contrasto con la colonna eretta, le gambe tese, i piedi girati all’infuori e le braccia arrotondate degli insegnanti di danza europei
-“Steppin’ on the blues”, pg 49
Elemento fondamentale e caratterizzante del solo jazz e swing è il feeling del “bounce” o pulse. Le diverse discipline di danza possono avere passi in comune, ma ciò che le contraddistingue è il tipo di groove con il quale vengono eseguiti.
Il bounce rappresenta il tempo della musica, e` la pulsazione 4/4.
Immagina di avere un contrabbasso dentro di te; quando mantieni il feeling del bounce, andare fuori tempo è impossibile, praticamente è il tuo metronomo!
Il solo jazz si caratterizza per movimenti rilassati, un corpo soggetto alla gravità, una colonna dinamica e ritmo! Praticamente il feeling del bounce è già esso stesso una danza!
Mentre ti trovi a praticare il bounce, tieni a mente queste idee di derivazione Africana.
Si tratta di una serie di considerazioni raccolte dall'autore Thompson, intervistando vari esperti nel settore culturale dell’Africa occidentale e centrale,
estratti dal libro Steppin’ on the blues,
- Non allineare i tuoi arti in maniera troppo rigida (Kongo)
- Balla piegato verso il basso (Congo)
- Mantieni i gomiti vicino ai fianchi. Devi muovere tutto il corpo, vibrare nell’interezza dei tuoi movimenti, ma al tempo stesso contienili; non lasciare che l’impulso di gesti,braccia e gambe disperdano la tua energia e ti allontanino dal centro del tuo movimento. (Congo)
Il Backbeat ovvero il“contro tempo” nella storia della musica jazz.
Il termine Backbeat si utilizza per descrivere un forte accento sul beat 2 e 4 in un tipico tempo musicale di 4/4.
Mentre nella tradizione musicale europea, i beats generalmente accentuati sono l’1 ed il 3, il jazz, le cui origini sono radicate nella musica tradizionale afro-americana delle comunità nere di New Orleans e stati Uniti, pone l’ accento forte su quello che e considerato il beat “debole”, o per l’appunto Backbeat.
Dice il gran compositore Afroamericano Duke Ellington nella descrizione del jazz. "Non scrocchiamo le dita sul beat e`troppo aggressivo. In jazz we don’t push, we let it fall.”
Cosa caratterizza un tipico pezzo swing? Il bassista potrà pizzicare le corde del beat forte, 1 e 3, oppure potrà suonare i 4 beat dell’intera battuta, eseguendo quella che si chiama un “Walk line; in questo caso diremo che il basso effettua il “walking”.
Ill batterista doppia il tempo percuotendo la grancassa (kick drum), eseguendo esattamente le stesse note sui beat 1 e 3 o la “walkin line”, e swingando sul piatto ride (ride cymbal), mentre l’ “high hat” (un’altra componente della batteria) si mantiene costantemente sui beat 2 e 4. Questa è la base musicale dello swing.
Il ritmo sincopato ed il concetto di “swinging 8th note ” nella musica jazz
Stando alla descrizione dello scrittore Albert Murray, il ballerino jazz e` come uno strumento percussivo in constante conversazione con i musicisti.
E`interessante notare come nella musica jazz, anche la parte melodica si compone in realtà di una forte valenza ritmica, praticamente anche le melodie vengono eseguite in maniera percussiva. Possiamo assolutamente dire che “it’s all about the rhythm”, ed il perché va ricercato nelle sue origini Africane.
Quando parliamo di ritmo nella musica swing, dobbiamo fare riferimento alle note swingate ed al ritmo di tipo sincopato
- una sincope, in musica è definita come una deviazione rispetto al modello ritmico che generalmente ci si aspetta, deviazione che si realizza ponendo degli accenti su beat “deboli”. Per intenderci,è come spostare un beat verso quello che lo precede o che lo segue.
- una sincope è un porta che si apre su ritmi interessanti e complessi. Gioca con le nostre aspettative circa al punto in cui dovrebbe cadere il beat, allenta ed ammorbidisce il ritmo, e porta sorprese
Il ritmo sincopato si crea swingando l’ottava nota. Si tratta di un pattern ritmico che devi conoscere per poter ballare i passi della danza jazz vernacolare. Porta in sé un feeling che ricorda una caduta, come un singhiozzo; incoraggio il senso di lasciare cadere, di “release” all’interno di un movimento o mediante il movimento stesso.
Tantissimi passi rappresentano il ritmo sincopato: il nostro noto triple steps, lo stomp off, il ball change (kick ball change, hold ball change, slide ball change). Il ritmo non cambia, ma può assumere diverse forme.
Un ballerino di jazz si contraddistingue per la sua capacità di far uso del ritmo sincopato durante le sua improvvisazioni.
Un ballerino di jazz si contraddistingue per la sua capacità di far uso del ritmo sicnopato durante le sua improvvisazioni.
Che significa insomma “swingare l’ottava nota”? Significa che sei libero di creare il ritmo sincopato swingando la nota che vuoi. Puoi far cadere la sincope su qualsiasi beat della battuta.
Il ritmo sincopato è una caratteristica veramente apprezzata in qualsiasi ballerino, musicista o performer di jazz. Chi realmente possiede “swing”, merita tutto l’apprezzamento, rispetto ed amore!
Per ciò vi incoraggio ad imparare le basi della musica swing e del ritmo sincopato, cosi sara piu semplice sviluppare una maniera di ballare fluida, elegante, controllata e in stretta connessione con le radici Afro Americane che tale cultura racchiude in sé
Questa è solo un breve racconto della storia del jazz; c’è un mondo da scoprire. Vi invito a continuare ed approfondire le vostre conoscenze, arricchendo la mente mentre vi allenate con corpo! Così da poter mantenere la connessione con il passato mentre continuiamo a ballare la danza jazz al giorno d’oggi.
Tutto cio e`fondamentale soprattutto se state imparando il solo jazz nel formato virtuale e quindi lontani dal contesto di una comunità jazz che potrebbe aiutarvi nel processo di apprendimento. Perciò, se questo è il vostro caso, vi incoraggio ancor di più a svolgere ricerche e non smettere di imparare!
- Steppin’ on The Blues The Visible Rhythms of African American dance by Jacqui Malone
- Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery By Katrina Dyonne Thompson
- Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities edited by Kariamu Welsh, Esailama Diouf, Yvonne Daniel
- Tappin’ at the Apollo: The African American Female Tap Dance Duo Salt and Pepper By Cheryl M. Willis
- Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins by Cholly Atkins, Jacqui Malone
- Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver
- Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance By Anthea Kraut
- African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry edited by Kariamu Welsh-Asante
- The Routledge Dance Studies Reader edited by Alexandra Carter, Jens Giersdorf, Yutian Wong
Scritto da Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Tradotto da Martina Maddalena
The history of social dancing in the United States is very rich. Most of us heard of Lindy Hop or swing dancing. Though there were many amazing dance forms in combination with Jazz music, that dominated the cultural landscape in America in the first half of the 20th century.
In this blog I will make a quick overview of the popular social partner dances during the first half of the 20th century such as Cakewalk, Two Step, One Step, Fox Trot, Charleston, Shag, St. Louis Shag, Balboa and Lindy hop (Jitterbug).
Ragtime was a highly rhythmic dance music that became an international phenomenon in late 19th century. This music was always associated with dancing. As the music moved to ballrooms, the ragtime sheet music always had a. mark of an "appropriate" dance. The dances named on the earliest ragtime sheet music are the cakewalk, march, and two-step. Interestingly, at time all of those dances or a combination was written on a sheet. It tells us that there was lack of musical distinction between the dances.
The Cakewalk, also known as the “Chalk line walk” or “walk around” was a pre-Civil war dance developed from the original “prize walks”. Prize walks were held in the plantations of the Southern United States in the mid 19th century.
Prize walks were sort of carnival events. The slaves of southern plantations used to gather at their master’s house to enter a contest and perform a dance. In fact the dance’s name comes from the decorated cake that would be awarded to the winning couple.
Us slaves watched white folks' parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we'd do it too, but we used to mock 'em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn't dance any better.
- Baldwin 1981
Basically the dance was about mocking the aristocratic mannerism of white people. Initially it was performed by men and Black dancers only. Later the shows saw the introduction of both women and Whites, usually performing in Black face.
By the mid 19 century, cakewalk began to enter the minstrel show acts. Slowly it became a part of American culture and entertainment. Though the dance was the first one to dissapear from the ragtime sheet music in around 1904.
The Two- Step
American Two-Step craze began around 1890. Before that it was the European dances that dominated American ballrooms. The Two-Step was a simple dance in 2/4 or 4/4 time that brought on marching chassés steps.
The Two Step flourished because it was perfectly suitable for dancing to marching tunes of John Philip Sousa. “The Washington Post” tune by Sousa fit the Two Step so much that the dance was at times called The Washington Post.
One of the most popular Two Step dances was The Circle Two Step (also called “The Paul Jones”), a mixer where the dancers began in a large circle, broke away with a partner for The Two - Step, reformed the circle and found a new partner, broke away for The Two - Step, and so on.
- Erica Nielsen, p. 38
Few decades later the new style The One - Step (and the Foxtrot) replaced The Two - Step dance.
The One - Step (a.k.a: the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear) came from England in 1911. At that time it consisted of a mere march forward, backward and a right turn, danced with military precision. When it was brought to America, it was adapted to the syncopated rhythms of Ragtime music by adding a run or “trot” (like a little galop, in a horse riding style).
The One Step, that became popular after the animal dances, however, eliminated all hoppings, all contortions of the body, all flouncing of the elbows, all twisting of the arms, and above all else, all fantastic dips
- Erica Nielsen, p. 17
It was like this until the ballroom couple Irene and Vernon Castle developed what was seen by the white community as a more dignified version of it. It took the name of the Castle walk.
However around 1917 One Step gradually fell out of fashion and disappeared from the ragtime music sheets.
The Foxtrot (also Fox Trot, The Fox-trot, Fishwalk or Horse Trot), is an animal dance, that later became a ballroom dance craze. As Nielsen and Kassing state, foxtrot might have originated from the 1913 (1914) vaudeville act by Arthur Carringford, whose stage name was Henry Fox. His two slow walks followed by 4 quick steps became known as “Fox’s Trot”.
However some attribute the invention of the Foxtrot to the Castles. Two professional ballroom dancers, who through their frequent performing foxtrot inspired many people to come to dance studios for instructions. You can watch The Castles dancing fox trot in public here.
In the 20s, English professional dancers and dance teachers found a new standardised way to adapt this dance to slower tempos. So the dance split into two ones : the “slow” foxtrot (also called English foxtrot) and the “Quickstep”. The quickstep being influenced by Charleston. The slow foxtrot by the Valse Boston.
The foxtrot today remains mainly a competitive American dance, thought in academies and dance studios. Equally one can also dance foxtrot in ballrooms at social events. During its development another spin off style came to be: the Pea body.
The Peabody is an American ballroom dance which evolved around 1914 from a faster version of the Foxtrot. What was called the “Quickstep” in England, was the Peabody in America, named after the New York policeman William Frank Peabody.
The Peabody was basically a unique, jaunty type fast fox-trot, done to ragtime music. Danced in an unusual couple position, called the “English”. Mr Peabody, was a big man. He simply could not hold the partner directly in the front. As a result the position is shifted.
The dance covers a lot of space on the floor. Peabody is essentially a fast one-step, with long, gliding strides and a few syncopations. The leader changes sides as he travels around the floor and adds promenades and simple turns as the dance progresses.
Here you can watch Ralph Kramden dancing his version of The Peabody to hot jazz music at a costume ball.
The One Step and Peabody went on to become the (modern) Quick-step in American style ballroom.
Charleston dance is a solo and a partner dance. Named after a Charleston city, its invention attributed to Jenkins orphan boys and has roots in geechie / gullah culture. In 1920's it became a national craze and reached international popularity. For more information on history of the dance you can read my blog, the History of Charleston dance.
Charleston dance as solo and partnered style saw stylistic changes between the 20s and the 40s. In the 20s it was danced to ragtime and early jazz music (New Orleans jazz). And in the 30s to swing music. Hence, we can say Charleston is a ragtime dance and a swing dance.
Closed face to face position was typical for the 20s style. The footwork mainly consisted of Charleston 20s twists.
The dance got a new life in 1930s in the Savoy Ballroom when it was merged with Lindy Hop. In the 30s and 40s the close embrace position opened out. Now you had "hand to hand", "side by side", "tandem" (when the follower stands in front of the leader) and break away positions.
Watch Al Minns and Leon James doing the Lindy Charleston in couple. You can see the style, footwork and couple position has changed. More importantly, the feel changed. It is swinging, has a 4/4 feel and looks more horizontal.
Swing dance is a group of dances that developed with the swing style of jazz music from the 1920's to the 40s. During the swing era, there were many styles of swing dancing. Some that survived beyond the era include: Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, and Charleston. Swing is a broad term. It's the name of the era, name of the rhythm, and a tern to describe group of dance styles.
Collegiate Shag or Shag
The Collegiate Shag (or "Shag") is a partner dance done primarily to uptempo swing and pre-swing jazz music.
It is believed that the origins of the dance are within the African American community of the Carolinas in the 1920s. Shag became a craze in the 30s and even the New York Times described it as a “fundamental dance step for swing”
The Collegiate Shag was extremely popular with younger dancers. Especially popular with those who prefer lots of action rather than the slow mellow style of Fox - Trot. Interestingly, since the 1930s the word “Shag” has been used to refer to a family of Jitterbug dances.
Shag dance does not strive for elegance. It is about energy and explosion. Its bouncy hops, kicks, exaggerated hand hold and gawky style give it a fun flair.
Prior to the 30s shag was probably known under other names like “flea hop”. It is as well suggested that the dance evolved from a partnered version of the solo Vaudeville/tap step called "flea hop". It featured a movement pattern that's very similar to shag.
One curious fact, in the late 19th century, "shagger" was a nickname for 'Vaudeville performer'. Perhaps, this Vaudeville slang was what inspired Lewis Hall (who claimed to have invented the Shag step in 1938) to give his dance the name "shag".
Alber Murray Shag
One more interesting video about shag dance is where Albert Murray teaches a shag class. Actually, his style of dancing shag got it's name as Albert Murray Shag.
Today Shag is an internationally popular swing dance style. Take a look at the contemporary shag dancers at one of the biggest events in the Europe dedicated to this dance - Barcelona Shag Festival
St. Louis Shag
St. Louis shag is a swing dance that evolved from Collegiate Shag, Charleston and Lindy Hop, which originated in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930s.
The dance has an 8-count basic that is commonly composed of triple-step, kick, triple-step, kick. The St. Louis Shag is an extremely fast, closed position dance. The general speed for it is around 220-300 bpm.
In this video you can see Christian Frommelt and Jenny Shirar performing St. Louis Shag at Rock That Swing festival in Munich.
Balboa is a town in Newport Beach, California. In the 1930s, dancers at the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach, California, created their own swing dance style. The club was a small building. It was simply impossible to throw wild acrobatics of the Jitterbug there. So dancers created the Balboa - a perfectly adapted dance to fast music and crowded ballrooms.
Balboa is usually separated in two forms. Pure-bal, that is danced in closed position. Bal-swing, where the dancers are separated and lot of turns are performed
It was a simple style of dance based on a close position, strong partner connection and easy footwork based on shuffling along the floor, although covering the least space possible.
When Swing dancers added a few Balboa steps in their dance style, a combo of the two was born: the “Bal swing”. This one allows the partners to break the close position, introducing more freedom into using turns, spins, even aerials, while keeping the original Balboa tradition and philosophy.
The Lindy (The Lindy Hop)
The Lindy Hop was born in the African-American communities in Harlem, New York. It was born to a sound of a new style of music being played in Harlem - swing. The musicians called this new rhythm “swinging the beat”.
The name Lindy Hop came from a dancer Shorty "George" Snowden. During a dance marathon the reporter asked Snowden what he was dancing. Just at that time in 1927 Charles Lindberg made a transatlantic flight and all the newspapers were screaming "Lindberg "hopped" the Atlantic". And so Snowden said: "Lindy Hop".
Snowden danced at the marathon with his partner Mattie Purnell. You can see them in this video. Shorty was doing the break away and the send outs, those were the predecessors of the swing out move. Swing out is the defining move of Lindy Hop.
According to Frankie Manning, the Lindy developed out of Charleston, the Collegiate and the break away.
The most famous Lindy Hop video is from "Hellzapoppin'" film, 1941
- The film features The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (so called "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers"):
- William Downes/Overalls & Frances "Mickey" Jones (0:39)
- Billy Ricker/Chef's Hat & Norma Miller (1:09)
- Al Minns/White Coat-Black Pants & Willa Mae Ricker (1:29)
- Frankie Manning/Overalls & Ann Johnson (1:55)
The history of the originators of the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom. In this video you can see the Ambassador of Lindy Hop Frankie Manning social dancing.
Somehow there is a confusion between the names Jitterbug and the Lindy. In fact, jitterbug is just a nickname for Lindy Hop. Some would say, it was a white name for the Lindy. the term jitterbug was in use after the 1940's.
The term actually had a bad connotation. It was used to describe a drunk person shaking from "jitters", or tremors. A person who had too much “jitter sauce” (illegal moonshine). As Al Minns describes, jitterbug was a name for people who were bad dancers.
The word “jitterbug” as well appeared in Cab Calloway's popular swing number "Call of the Jitterbug" in 1935. In this song we can hear that jitterbugging is connected with its drinking aspect.
Wizard of Oz and Lindy Hop
The film Wizard of Oz played a big part in settling the names. The producers wanted a swing dance scene and preferred the name jitterbug. “Lindy Hop” seemed like a very unfamiliar word with no direct association that would not get popular appeal. Jitterbug in the movie was actually a scary insect sent to Dorothy by the Witch. Once bitten the victims shall dance till they fall in exhaustion. Here you can watch the scene from the movie.
It’s very interesting and sad how this situation played on reputation of the dance. Lindy hop was just becoming popular and known to white audiences at the time when Wizard of Oz came out. The fact jitterbug, the name of the dance, and it's association with the witch created for some social groups an association with illegal, primitive and threatening dance.
Here is a fantastic video of Al Minns and Leon James performing jazz dances at the talk show "Playboy's Penthouse", hosted by Marshall Stearns. You can see them dancing Cakewalk, Charleston, Two Step, Collegiate, Break Away, The Lindy and The Big Apple.
References and bibliography
- Social dance: a short history. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. Chapter 7. The twentieth century: Jazz and after by Franks A.H. 1963.
- "The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality" by Baldwin, Brooke (1981). Journal of Social History. Oxford University Press.
- Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History By Edward A. Berlin
- Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake. A social and popular dance reader by Julie Malnig
- "Peabody," in The Encyclopedia of Social Dance by Albert and Josephine Butler (New York: Albert Butler Ballroom Dance Service, 1971).
- Folk Dancing by Erica Nielsen
- Ballroom Dancing Techniques - The One Step By Anon
- History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach By Gayle Kassing
- Shag: The Legendary Dance of the South by Bo Bryan
- The Original One-Step (Newman, Dances of To-Day, 1914, p. 69)
- Ragtime One Step
- Ragtime dance. The One - Step
- What is Shag Dancing
- Lindy Hop, The original swing dance
- Cakewalks & Jitterbugs: The Marriage of Jazz and Dance
- Historia del Balboa: del Pure - Bal al Bal - Swing
- Vernon and Irene Castle Biography
- The Definition of Jitterbug
Jazz dance is an umbrella term collecting many styles. Jazz dance has been constantly evolving, changing with time depending on who, where and to which music it was danced. In this blog we will overview 7 solo jazz dance styles and branches such as Buck and Wing, Strut, Eccentric dance, Charleston, Black Bottom, Broadway Jazz and Street Jazz.
From vernacular to stage
It is very interesting to discover how African cultural heritage shaped and influenced American dance today. From the early 18th West African traditions mixed up with the European ballroom dances and created the unique African-American dance style.
Dance was an integral part of slave plantation culture. It was a way to keep a continuity with African traditions: creating a community, a common language and a way of expression.
Let’s look at early black social dances in order to understand the vernacular essence and the roots of dances such as the Charleston dance, the Black Bottom and the Theatrical jazz.
Buck, Wings and Jigs
Like the Ring Shout and the Putting Juba, Back, Wing and Jig dance can be seen as a true example of plantation dances. They were developed as a response to the restrictions that white owners imposed on black people. These were the early black social dances.
Social dances are hugely important to help us understand how people lived their lives. In social dances we see transformation of the physical gesture people do every day in to creative practice.
- Tommy de Frantz
As Tommy de Frantz states, any social dance can be put into one of the two major categories: the buck and the wing dances.
The Buck are foot-working dances, like the Charleston or the Mash Potatoes. The Wing, are the torso engagement dances like the Twist or the Toon. And these dances come in cycles and tell us how the black dancers relate to the world and the music. Social dances define generations.
According to Tommy de Frantz, Professor in the Department of African and African American Studies in Duke University, African-American social dances emerged from a sort of trilogy of dances that came out around the 19th century. They are the buck, the wing and jigs dances.
- The Buck is a very percussive, rhythmical, grooving kind of dance. Buck dancing is regarded as an early form of tap dancing. The stomping of the ball of the feet is an early example of shuffles.
- The Wing dances involve a waving of the body. Actually different parts of the body can literally flap as if they were wings.
- The Jig dance are characterised by high energy quick moves and steps. It is a solo step dance from the British Isles. A type of Buck dance and Irish dance.
Strut is a ragtime dance with a brisk and self-assured walking rhythm. The cakewalk began as a strut dancing contest between slaves on Southern plantations where the best dancers earned actual cakes as prizes. Strut, as later cakewalk, and Turkey trot were ragtime favourites.
Dancers were dressed in their best clothes, usually with a hat and cane. Quite an eccentric and show dance it seemed to involve high kicks, flash big turns, jumps and splits. You can see a theatrical element in the dance as well. Dancers mimic the act of adjusting clothes before a flash step, as a sort of suspense move.
Watch Pepsi Bethel, Alfred Minns and Leon James perform the Strut in The Spirit Moves Part 1 film:
The Berry Brothers excelled with the strut and tap.
Eccentric dance is a special category. It is a style of vernacular dance in which the moves are unconventional and individualistic. It developed as a genre in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The dance was a result of African and exotic dance influence on the traditional styles of clog and tap dancing.
“[...]eccentric" is a catchall for dancers who have their own non-standard movements and sell themselves on their individual styles
- Stearns and Stearns, 232
The style may include elements of contortionism, leg-omania, and shake dancing.
Famous dancers of eccentric style are Earl Snakehips Tucker, Al “Rubberlegs” Norman, Ray Bolger and Jack Stanford. They used to build their act with their signature, individual movements including the common jazz vocabulary as shuffles, grinds, hops, kicks and twists. Tricks, leaps, splits or acrobatics were used as the spotlight elements to hold the audience’s attention.
“Snake-hips” and “Rubberlegs”
Two main moves of the eccentric dance style were the “snake-hips” and “rubberlegs”.
“Snakehips” characterised by flexible and boneless-like lower body. The “Rubberlegs” or Legomania, with its fluid leg movements kicks and jumps that can be related to “Kazotsky”, a Hungarian style of kicking from a squat position.
Eccentric dance performances were commonly seen in minstrel shows, music halls or vaudeville. Later they were accepted in musicals and movies for a comic relief.
There are elements of eccentric dance like shake, shimmies, legomania that can be found in Charleston and Black Bottom. Also, elements like acrobatics and leaps can be seen in tap dance. Think about performances of Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers and others.
The Charleston belongs to the family of African-American vernacular dances, and more specifically it is an authentic jazz dance as it was done to early jazz music (same as hot jazz, Dixieland jazz or New Orleans Jazz) combining elements derived from improvised African dance moves with jazz syncopated rhythms.
In the early 20s the Charleston dance turned into an American craze. It became a feature of the Jazz Age, the flappers and Prohibition era.
The dance is said to have been “officially” popularised when it was danced on stage, by the all-Black Broadway show "Runnin’ Wild (1923), to the song “The Charleston” by the Black American composer James P. Johnson.
Here is a video of two legendary dancers Al Minns and Leon James perform jazz dances talk show "Playboy's Penthouse". You can hear Marshall Stearns discusses the dance history with Hugh Hefner. This was probably filmed around 1960. Stears explains that there were 35 variations of the Charleston step. Minns and James show original charleston, scare crow, squat, around the world, hand to hand variations.
What are the real origins of the Charleston dance?
The origins of the Charleston dance can be traced back to the homonym city of South Carolina. There in 1891 the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, pastor of a small African - American church, founded an orphanage for African - American children.
In order to face the financial issues and needs of the kids, he set up a brass band, aiming to raise money by touring the northern states. In the beginning the band was playing the music of rural African-American life. At that period a new music was becoming popular - ragtime. Ragtime was a new style of playing, characterised by highly syncopated “ragged” melodies. Dance bands and orchestras began to "rag" or "jazz" up their standard repertoire.
The “geechie” steps. The early Charleston steps.
<Interestingly, as noted by observers, the Jenkins Band used to play a number of "geechie" tunes. Geechie is another name for Gullah. The Gullah is a west African tribe that was brought to the American lowlands to cultivate rice. As in the Gullah culture, music was not separated from the dance it accompanied. Hence it was common to see the orphanage band performances of geechie music being "conducted" in front by a young boy dancing "geechie" steps. The early Charleston steps!
The Black Bottom
More or less parallel to 20's Charleston, another wild African American vernacular dance began its social and stage rise. It was called the Black Bottom. It originates from New Orleans or Georgia (around 1910s). Th dance was probably influenced by an earlier dance named the Echo.
The name of Black bottom appeared in a popular hit composed by Perry Bradford “The original Black bottom dance”. Music sheet for the song provided instructions about how the dance was done together with the song. Bradford is said to have seen this dance in Jacksonville. African American dancers used to do it in the Deep South.
In 1924 Black Bottom entered the stage with the show Dinah (New York). It became popular with the George’s White Scandals in 1926, played at the Apollo, in Harlem. Starring the dancers Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. George White's scandals were Broadway revues produced by George White (1919–1939), on the model of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Ann Pennington's career started around 1911 on Broadway as chorus girl. Her signature dance was a variation of the Black Bottom. Although she was a queen of tap dancing and the Charleston.
Black Bottom started as a solo dance. One would emphasise either up or off beat movements, slap the backside while hopping forth and back. We can see the African influence in rhythm stomps, shuffles and torso movement. Also, the characteristic hand clapping and body slapping (hambone) can be traced back to its ancestor Patting Juba and its “patting”.
Miss Mildred Melrose, a well known dancer at the Piccadilly Cabaret demonstrates the "real" Black Bottom dance.
The term “broadway jazz” refers to the style of dance which is commonly seen in shows on Broadway. In fact, since 1940 it has been used with a different name: theatre jazz and / or musical theatre. Those terms mainly came with Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins choreographic styles that they brought to Hollywood and Broadway.
Bob Fosse style
Bob Fosse, an American dancer, choreographer and director had a major impact on jazz dance. His unique style is influenced by dancers like Fred Aistaire, Jack Cole and Jerome Robbins. He revolutionised dance performances seen so far in musicals. Fosse's style is characterised by the use of props like hats, canes and chairs, provocative moves.
The famous, shaking, jazzy hands, snapping fingers, you’d recognise his signature style behind the curtain. Fosse opened a different angle on what is a beautiful movement and a perfect line. With the curved shape shoulders and the closed-in positions of the knees, Fosse made an “ugly” aesthetic.
Bob Fosse made each tiny detail a big deal, every small thing tells a story, revealing something about the character. Without such a specificity, all the structure could fall apart. For Fosse each dancer is first of all an actor.
His angular and acrobatic style is probably due to his commercial dance career in nightclubs. In any way, mastering technique was not the only thing. He wanted dancers being able to play their emotions out while dancing. Which is the actual essence of Theatrical dance.
Earlier theatrical jazz pioneers that undoubtedly inspired Bob Fosse's work are Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole, with Cole being regarded as the “Father of Theatrical Jazz”.
In the theatre you want to see real people doing real things, expressing valid emotions in an artistic, meaningful way, disclosing bits of insight that will transfix you and make you understand something about life, and about yourself . . . I just try to touch the dancer at the centre of his emotion. I try to remind him of what he is a dancer, and actor, a real person. If you're ashamed of this or that emotion, you can't dance. You yourself may not behave a certain way as a person, but when you dance you must bring real emotion to whatever you're doing. Isn't that what dancing is about - emotion, life, and not just patterns in the air?
- Jack Cole in a 1968 interview for Danze magazine)
Read more about America's pioneer theatre dance artists here.
Street jazz / Jazz Funk
Street jazz or jazz funk come from the combination of jazz dance and hip-hop.
According to Robery James (144) it is a commercial jazz dance style that incorporates street steps with dance studio training. Fused together with a strong background academic jazz and ballet technique it is mainly danced on funk jazz, broken beat, music with a strong percussive beat.
The origins of African-American dances like the Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Theatrical or Musical Jazz can be directly linked to Black vernacular social dances. They developed between the early 19th to 20th century within Black African communities.
Some of these dances included elements of animal mimicry like the Buzzard Lope, the Pigeon Wing, Snake Hip, and Turkey Trot. Dances such as these were similar to the African tribal dances celebrating a successful hunt.
Animal mimicry through dancing movements can be seen in The Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Lindy Hop.
Typical elements of African tribal culture celebrated in ring dances such as Ring Shout and the Juba, are still visible nowadays. You can encounter them at jam circles and jam sessions, from Authentic jazz to Urban dance world, from UK underground jazz to House and break dance.
Jazz dance styles are still evolving nowadays. They are though rooted in vernacular dance styles. Hence it’s important to discover their history. When we are confident in the fundamentals, we can build a confident path forward.
The Wizard of Oz: Musical Adaptations from Baum to MGM and Beyond by Danielle Birkett, Dominic McHugh
Doin' the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy by Mark Rowell Jones
One Thousand Novelty and Fad Dances by Tom L. Nelson
Encyclopedia of American Folklife by Simon J Bronner
Beginning Jazz Dance by Robey, James
Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance by Anthea Kraut
The Spirit moves: a documentary about Black social dances
The Spirit moves: a documentary about Black social dances (Part 2)
Interesting information about Social dances
The history of African American social dance by Camille A. Brown
Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970, by Emery, Lynne Fauley.
Editor - Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Solo jazz is one of the best ways to help you improve your Lindy Hop. Lindy hop is a partnered dance that gives a lot of freedom to each partner. Even when dancing in close position or in a break away or swing out, there is so much freedom to improvise and express the music with your feet.
Every single great Lindy hopper in the old times and now are great solo jazz dancers. No wonder why? One truly can’t be without another.
Have you ever been in the situation where your partner decides to break away for some solo jazz magic, and rather than free, you felt alone, and very unsure? Do you often feel you are out of time, or blame others if you do feel that way? Or maybe you've seen a video of yourself afterward a couple dance and realised you may not look quite as elegant as you thought in that moment...then these tips are for you.
1. Want to dance well in couple, learn how to dance solo first
If you are struggling with balance, or, for instance, rotations and turns which is very common, when dancing Lindy hop, consider trying solo jazz. Practice those elements solo first and as a result you will massively improve your Lindy hop. The truth is your partner is not there to help you hold your balance or turn you. Your partner is there to communicate and co -create in a dance together. If you want to improve your Lindy hop, invest in your solo.
In order to learn how to turn, keep balance, and have a good posture you really need to practice those dance elements by yourself first.
When learning Lindy hop we are focusing on leading and following technique. Basically, how does communication in a couple happen, how can one body invite another body into different states and figures. But the essential, fundamental elements of jazz dances, like bounce (pulse), timing, syncopation, footwork, turns and many many more, shall be practiced and learned in solo jazz, and independently of another person which is essential.
When you are confident in those, being in a couple and dancing Lindy hop will feel heavenly.
2. Improve your Lindy Hop by expanding and innovating your footwork
Develop intelligence in your feet. Only you are in charge of your footwork when dancing Lindy hop. Your partner is not going to “inject” variations and lead you for solo steps. You have to work on that part yourself solo. The absolute best way to improve your footwork in Lindy hop is to work on your solo jazz.
What is in your feet is in your feet. If you ever looked at professional Lindy hoppers and dreamed of being so playful and reactive with your feet, do know that it comes from solo jazz dance work. If you know how to do Shorty George and kick ball changes you can add a flavour during the 6 beat passes. Tacky Annies, Apple Jacks, Suzie Qs and scissor kicks can come in very exciting and handy when variating swing out. Lock turns can be a fantastic way to make your turns and under arms passes something spectacular and juicy.
3. Shine at the solo moments
I am sure you once were dancing with (or maybe you yourself is) a playful partner who loves once in a while to let the couple connection go for a moment of solo conversation. And maybe during that moment instead of going for a spotlight move you felt left alone, embarrassed and begging your partner to please come back into the safe shell of the couple...?
In this case, solo jazz is the way to happiness and jazz. Learn a couple of classic vernacular moves like boogie back, boogie front, TOBA break, to know what to do and take the spotlight. Or even learn how to improvise in order to be fully reactive and in the moment respond to the moves of your partner. And if you want to be completely on top of your game, unlock Secrets of improvisation technique to be able to create a few exciting moves or variations and have a call and response conversation with your partner.
So doing, you feel the music, you feel your partner and the two of you, together with the music will create a perfect, balanced triangle.
When you are dancing with your partner, for that two and a half to three minutes, you are in love with each other. You're corresponding with each other by the moves that you make. It's a love affair, between you and your partner and the music. You feel the music, you feel your partner, she feels you and she feels the music. So the three of you are together. You've got a triangle, you know. Which one do you love best? [Frankie laughs.]
- Frankie Manning
4. Variate your Lindy hop moves
The whole point of jazz is improvisation. Once the patterns, basic footwork and figures are in your system, fly away and variate them.
Improvisation and personality are the key points and characteristics of African derived black dances. Jazz is a continuum and its nature is to be continuously evolving with the influences of time and other people. Jazz is a continuous innovation based on strong tradition.
Let’s be honest, that is where the real fun in Lindy hop lies, - in creativity. In order to be creative with your body and footwork mainly, for jazz dances are footwork based dances, we need to learn the principles and the secrets of improvisation and variations. To do that we once again come to the home of solo jazz.
In order to learn how to variate your triple step in swing out, it’s essential to understand what is triple step, how it can be done, what is swinging 8th note and syncopation. Finally, what are the ways and tools to variate a given step! Same goes for rock step, which is as well one of the most common steps in Lindy Hop and swing dances.
It’s this understanding and knowledge which will make a difference and progress. You can learn by doing solo jazz. Eventually, you will be able to dramatically improve your Lindy hop and shine on every single send out and triple step swivel.
If you are specifically interested in Variations, you can check a 4 volume online course "Variation Lab".
5. Don’t only feel good when doing the Lindy hop, look good
Dance is an aesthetic form. Dance is a combination of feel, time and shapes. And shapes shall be aesthetic. No matter much we emphasise the importance of the feeling when dancing swing dance, dance should as well look good.
Good lines and style don't only come from feeling good doing a move. That works as well, no doubt. Though, in some situation to get the right feel, you need to copy the shape of the move.
What “good look” means in a dance is an almost philosophical category indeed. Aesthetic does not necessarily mean beautiful. To give an example, the famous choreographer Bob Fosse invented his own signature style with the idea of “ugly movement”. Though he transformed “ugly” into aesthetically beautiful.
However in Lindy Hop the emphasis is mostly on the feeling. The feeling of your partner, lead and follow signals. In some ways you can forget to pay attention to how you are looking when you are dancing. Practicing Solo Jazz we practice the feel and the shape in a holistic way. We do look in the mirror to make sure the shapes are balanced and aesthetic. Working on your moves and shapes solo will significantly improve your Lindy Hop.
6. Find your style
We shall as well talk about the style. To have a style, your own recognisable style, is to be on top of the jazz game. We all have different bodies hence same move will, of course, look different on each one of us.
Unlocking the secrets of your movement and bringing out your own style can be a long process. But it’s a journey for a treasure worth taking. You can spend some time researching your body, your movement solo in front of the mirror or camera. Ask yourself what are your strengths? What exactly makes your movement yours?
Jean Veloz swivels are so distinctive. You can recognise her angular shapes with loads of shoulder and hip movement and upright posture.
And now look at Jewel McGowan with her fabulous extreme knee swivels and the arm behind.
One more interesting female Lindy Hopper Genevieve Grazis (Jenny Grey) P.S. Don't mind the clap on 1.
Look at The Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning and Willa Mae Ricker. The style is called Savoy Style. Low, fast and fierce. Frankie was the innovator and a creator of an acrobatics in Lindy. You can see he is bowing so low to his dance partner on the breakaway moments, when doing the kick back.
And here is Dean Collins with Bertha Lee gliding. Dean Collins has this impatience in his footwork. It's fast and energetic. Though the upper body stays "concentrated", almost bracing. You can see he is doing his signature turn in the solo moments.
7. Develop a body awareness
Practicing solo jazz helps you develop a body awareness and consciousness that is often not trained in Lindy hop classes. In a general Lindy Hop dance class you may focus more on connection, new moves to learn with your partner or just social dancing. In solo jazz, because of its individual nature, you really focus on yourself.
You are the only responsible for your feelings and aesthetic in your solo dance. You feel bad at improvising? Then start again, go through solo jazz vocabulary. Play some games to make the process more enjoyable (check out Ksenia’s Method “practice games”) Look at yourself in the mirror and try to improve what you don’t like. A step a day, and it will get better
8. Develop your sense of confidence
Quite often in partner dance we are dependent on the other person to dance with us. Hence if we have great timing and they don’t you can try to help them, even though it can feel uncomfortable. Equally if you have bad timing and your partner is amazing, they can guide you, and so you become dependent on their timing. You then switch to another dancer, who doesn’t have such good timing and now you are both lost.
Before we go blaming the other dancer, thinking it must be their fault. To dance well with dancers x,y,z, it is important we know our own timing is solid, balance is good and footwork is clean. Yet again solo jazz dance will show you this, in an instant! There is no one to blame, no one else to look at but yourself .
Try to increase your confidence starting from learning how to solo dance, you will see how much better you feel while dancing in a couple.
The Charleston dance was "The King of dances" in 20th century and had a huge influence on American culture. In this blog you can find out different ways of how to do the dance, its technique and footwork.
Charleston dance history
Charleston is a name of the city, dance style, step and song. Scholars attribute the spread and invention of the geechee inspired Charleston dance to the Jenkins Orphanage Band boys from Charleston city, South Carolina. The Charleston song written by John P. Johnson, inspired by Gullah rhythms, became the signature tune for the dance.
This dance has African roots and was created by African - American people. It was first sighted in the streets of Harlem in 1903. Though it was popularised by young flappers during 1920's. It became internationally known thanks to Josephine Baker Parisian "Le revue negre".
If you'd like to learn about the origins of the dance there is a full blog on The History of The Charleston dance.
6 version of how to do the Charleston step
In order to know how to do the Charleston “basic” step we should know that it has changed with time and place. It started as a step with twists, then transformed into a crazy wild kicking move with the swing era.
There are at least 6 versions of the “basic” step: groove walk, kicks, swinging kicks, 20’s twist, 20’s glide, and afro version “reverse twist” Charleston. Each version has its specifics.
- When doing groove walk, we should remember to keep a steady and strong bounce (pulse).
- For kicks the most important thing is to keep the right timing of the kick step and kick from the knees. All while keeping the body inclined forward and only forward and making sure to move with the kicks and not to stay on one spot.
- 20’s Charleston style with twists has its thing in a constant (every single beat) energetic though light twisting of the feet with the weight on the balls of the feet. All while making the kick up in the air and accentuating the weak (off) beat.
- 20’s glide is similar to 20s Charleston twist but is done without lifting the feet off the floor this way creating continuous gliding on the floor.
- Finally, to do the reverse Charleston twist we shall keep the legs bent low and keep the whole foot on the ground with the weight mainly of the heels.
In this video you can learn 6 basic versions of how to do the Charleston “basic” step: groove walk, kicks, swinging kicks, 20’s twist, 20’s glide, and afro version “reverse twist”.
35 Charleston variations
Here is a video of two legendary dancers Al Minns and Leon James perform jazz dances talk show "Playboy's Penthouse". You can hear Marshall Stearns discusses the dance history with Hugh Hefner. This was probably filmed around 1960. Stears explains that there were 35 variations of the Charleston step. Minns and James show a few: original 20's charleston, scare crow, squat, around the world, high kick and hand to hand variations.
How to do the 20s Charleston dance style?
20s Charleston is not only a step, it’s a style. A style that is defined by music, clothing style, manner and expression. 20s Charleston was a craze during the Jazz Age. It is danced to ragtime, hot jazz and charleston.In order to look authentic we should remember a few important technical elements on how to do the 20s Charleston:
- As it is danced to ragtime and hot jazz (early jazz, Dixieland, New Orleans jazz). The music is syncopated and has a “rag” rhythm though it is still quite even. The accentuation is on 2 and 4 and so will be the bounce, as the bounce always reflects the music rhythm.
- As the music is ragged and the body can embody this quality the best when being more “puppet” like. It is better if we use more joints rather than muscles for the light, ragged, fast movements of 20s Charleston
- The accentuation is on 2 and 4 and so should be the accent when doing the 20s kicks. The accent is in the air and not on the floor.
Aesthetics of the 20s
There is a lot to learn from seeing the connection of the Charleston dance aesthetics with cultural elements of 20th century America.
- Deep connection to African roots reveals elements of improvisation, spontaneity as well as grounded body position.
- There is connection with flappers and their revolutionary new image of a woman and sexually charged movements.
- Comedy connects to 20s Charleston with its silly moves and irony.
- We can see connection with silent movies through the exaggerated overly dramatic expressions.
- Finally eccentric dance is a part of this dance culture with its legomania and bizarre movements.
You will look super authentic if you will include those qualities, impressions in your dance.
Its important to mention that this dance was immensely popular during the period of 1920's Prohibition as well as 1930's Great Depression. When US stock market crashed and part of the society was left in complete poverty, dancing for many was an anti - depression pill. It swept the worries away.
Look at the fantastic Bee Jackson, the “Queen of Charleston” and get ideas on how to do the Charleston! Miss Bee Jackson of the Piccadilly Cabaret and Kit Kat Club demonstrates her gimmick - dancing on a very small floor space.
In this demo video you see me demonstrating the concept of a “Silent Movie”. I am slowing down and speeding up in the real time (without FX), while searching for exaggerated overly dramatic face expressions. The idea comes from the fact that the music was layered on silent movies after the film was done. Oftentimes the music played an atmospheric role. Therefore the dance and movements looked out of time with the actual beat of the song.
Animalism and African roots
I'd like to accentuate the connection with animalism in dance movements as the Charleston dance belongs to the family of African-American vernacular dances. To know more on what are the characteristics of African-American dances that as well reflect in the this dance, read the blog on “ A brief cultural history of black dance”
In this video class from the course Secrets of Charleston 20s, where you can learn how to do the step called the “Cow Tail”. Animalistic move, in a way it was inspired by the cows waving their tail to get rid of the flies.
All of this and more you can learn by taking a course Secrets of Charleston 20s, course with over 40 video.
Iconic Charleston dancers
Some of the iconic dancers to watch, learn and get inspired:
Jenkins Orphanage Band boys
In this video playlist on Secrets of Solo channel I collected videos of the most famous dancers, historical figures. Watch to get inspired.
The difference between 20s & 30s style Charleston
As we mentioned before the Charleston dance style has changed with time and music. I use this categories to spotlight the difference that was strongly affected by the music, more specifically rhythm section.
In 20s Charleston with hot twists and eccentric moves was danced to ragtime, hot jazz music. It has half time pulse and accentuated the 2 and 4 beat. It replicates the bass tuba or the double bass. Bass tuba line for early jazz was either 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. When double bass came to stage, the players wither played half time notes or doubled up on the same note twice. 1/2 feel reflects in half time pulse in the dancers body. The movement is more even, more vertical and ragged.
The 20s style is based on the twists and twisted kick. The most important image is the "crossed" twisted leg. The legend says, some dancers got "Charleston twist" of the knee, when they twisted too hard.
In this video you can hear a very rag song. Notice that the dancers are holding their bodies more upright. Their pulse is ragged (even jumpy at times).
In 1930's the dance changed with swing music to so called lindy kicks. You could see now dancers doing big wide kicks and travelling across the floor. The feel of the Charleston is 4/4 (4 on the floor). It reflects the double bass in swing tunes, that has a walking line. So called "walking bass". Musicians say "the bass walks", when the player hits every single note. 4/4 feel reflects in constant pulse in the dancers body. The movement is "spreading", it is more horizontal. It looks softer and smoother.
In this video you can hear the 4/4 feel on the bass and clearly see how dancers reflect it in their smooth pulse. Note, when dancers go to lindy Charleston kicks, how much they lower their upper body and start to hover over the ground.
Music to dance Charleston
The first tune you would think to dance Charleston to is, of course, famous ragtime tune "The Charleston", written by James P. Johnson. The Charleston beat is considered a clave rhythm.
As a musical entity ragtime was, and is, an instrumental work in 2/4 time composed for the piano. The style surfaced in the early 1900's and was developed by composer Scot Joplin. It was the forerunner to jazz. It combines a syncopated series of melodies accompanied by a steady, even rhythm. The left hand plays a steady, almost march-like succession of bass notes and chords while the right hand plays syncopated melodies in a "ragged" manner. Hence, the name of the style.
Here is a Spotify playlist of ragtime tunes. You will hear the music of Eubie Blake, Scot Joplin, James P. Johnson.
Other music style that one can dance 20s Charleston is early jazz. Early jazz, that is as well called “New Orleans jazz”, Dixieland jazz, hot jazz are the terms referring to the same style of jazz based on the music that developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century. Its 4 main influences were ragtime, military brass bands, the blues, and gospel music.
New Orleans jazz or Dixieland Jazz was incredibly popular through the 1920s, Jazz Age. One of the first uses of the term "Dixieland" with reference to music was in the name of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (later changed to "Jazz"). They recorded their first vinyl in 1917. What defines the sound of Dixieland music is that one instrument plays the melody (often trumpet) and all the other musicians improvise around it.
Here is a Spotify playlist with a very popular songs for 20s Charleston. You will hear music of such artists as Original Dixieland Band, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman and other. Or else you can listen to my YouTube Charleston compilation.
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya