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
Any of us that dance swing surely love the Charleston dance! But so few of us know the history, where the dance originated. Although we all have an image of white rich flapper girls, dancing the charleston, smoking cigarettes and smiling on screen, do we really know who invented the first steps that came to be The Charleston dance? How did the dance come to be? And how did it get its name? Why are there so few images of Black Charleston dancers? I can tell you now, it may not be as simple as it was named after the city and popularised by flappers. Here I hope to answer some of those questions. Come take the journey to understanding the rich past of this dance form.
The Charleston dance belongs to the family of African-American vernacular dances. More specifically it is an authentic jazz dance as it was done to jazz music (“hot jazz” and originally the ragtime) combining elements derived from improvised African dance moves with syncopated jazz rhythms.
1800’s - Juba dance as the early origin of the Charleston
Enslaved Africans brought it (The Charleston dance) from Kongo to Charleston, South Carolina, as the Juba dance, which then slowly evolved into what is now known as Charleston. (...) In African, however, the dance is called Juba or the Djouba. The name Charleston was given to the Juba dance by Europeans much later when they came to America
- Africanisms in American Culture, p.52
The Juba dance or hambone , originally known as Pattin' Juba, is an African American style of dance. This one-legged sembuka step, over-and-cross, arrived in Charleston between 1735 - 1740. It involves “patting” ("Pattin' Juba") stamping, slapping the chest and arms and clapping. While Juba is a word used for songs sung in plantations.
Even in the 18th century the Juba dance (today known as Charleston) was so popular that a premium was placed on black domestics who would be good Juba dancers to teach the lady of the house some steps.
“Geechie” steps Gullah culture as the origins of the Charleston dance
There are so many amazing stories of the origins of the Charleston dance. In my research I had to check and double check to see which might be the right one. However, as anyone digging into history knows, there is always some subjectivity as to what is “the truth”, so here are all the sources I could find.
According to Frankie Manning, from the book “Ambassador of Lindy Hop”, the Charleston may have been based on a step called Jay - Bird, and is said to have originated in South Carolina, Charleston, where it was sighted in 1903.
So what happened in South Carolina, Charleston? In 1891, In Charleston, South Carolina, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, pastor of a small African - American church, founded an orphanage for African - American children - Jenkins Orphanage.
In order to face the financial issues and needs of the kids, he set up a brass band. At that time the Jenkins Orphanage band was mainly performing Gullah, or as it was called geechee music. True to tradition the band featured young dancers, who performed “geechie” steps in front of the band, as if conducting the musicians.
Many scholars believe that the Jenkins Orphanage Band is responsible for the national spread of the Gullah inspired Charleston steps while they were travelling to raise the money.
The Gullah/Geechee people are descendants of west Africans, rice growing tribes, who were enslaved and brought to the sea islands because of their expertise in the rice growing traditions. They were brought to live in North Carolina all the way down to Florida, but primarily in South Carolina, sea islands.
There are a few stories that tells us who was the inventor of the Charleston step.
Story I - boys from Charleston Jenkins Band
Professor Jacky Malone in Steppin on the Blues tells us about a street and cabaret dancer Russel Brown. He was best known for “Geechie dance” that was later called '' The Charleston”. She quotes the jazz pianist Willie Smith (“The Lion”), who fully attributes the spread of Charleston to the Gullah/Geechee culture and the boys from Jenkins Orphanage.
Willie Smith recollects that people in Harlem would holler when they'd see Russel Brown dance: “Hey Charleston, do your Geechie dance”.
Some folks say that is how the Charleston got its name. I am a tough man for facts and I say the Geechie dance had been in New York for many years before Brown showed up. The kids from the Jenkins Orphanage Band in Charleston used to do Geechie steps when they were in New York on their yearly tour
- Willie Smith (Steppin' on the Blues, p.85)
It is interesting to mention that Gullah is the most authentic African culture in America. In the Gullah culture, music was not separated from the dance it accompanied. The unique rhythms and accompanying dance rituals of Gullah culture were often taken over by Charleston's early jazz and ragtime musicians.
Story II - Russel Brown, musician of Jenkins Band
We find a similar story about the orphan boy dancing Geechie steps in author’s Mark Knowles book “The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances”. The only difference is that Russel Brown is mentioned as a musician, and a member of Jenkins Orphanage Band.
Story III - Dan White & southern dancers at The Jungles Casino
Mark Knowles as well quotes John P. Johnson, the composer of “The Charleston” tune. Johnson says that he saw the Gullah dances in The Jungles Casino in 1913 where he was playing. Majority of dancers were from South Carolina, Charleston. The best of all on the dance floor, was Dan White, recollects Johnson. He was the one to introduce The Charleston step as we know it. Johnson says that he composed his famous Charleston tunes while watching Southern dancers jamming.
Story IV - Russel Brooks from Charleston
There is an audio documentation of how Willie "The Lion" Smith tells a story about Charleston. One day himself, Jamie Johnson (presumably John P. Johnson) and Fats saw a little guy, they called him Russel Brooks. Brooks was a dancer from Charleston. He used to dance on the streets and cafes for quarters. "Jamie said, I think I'll write a dance for him, Lion, and we will call it The Charleston". He mentions that the "geechies" they come from North Carolina and "they can dance". Following the story Willie "The Lion" plays "the Charleston" tune.
This piece is from his 1958 "The Legend of Willie The Lion Smith" LP, produced by Grand Award Record Group.
Story V - The Charleston, Herman Brown’s dance
Also we find an interesting, slightly different angle on the story about the spread of Charleston in Alphonso Brown’s book “ A Gullah Guide to Charleston”. He writes about Herman Brown, a boy who brought the dance from Charleston to Harlem. “The dance is known now as The Charleston, Herman Brown’s dance”.
Brown writes how once touring in New York John P. Johnson taught the boys from Jenkins Band his tune “The Charleston” from popular Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild” and the moves that went along with it. Upon returning from New York The Jenkins Band would play the new ragtime music and do the steps. White ladies would come along and imitate the moves.
We can only collect as many stories and memories as we can to build a more complete picture of how the history of the Charleston dance. What we know now is that the Charleston dance swept the world up in a frenzy of wild dancing.
Here is a excerpt from the Jenkins Orphanage Band performing. You can see the boy doing the early Charleston, "geechie" dance. You can watch the full video here.
1920s - The Charleston on stage and film
In the early 20s the Charleston dance turned into a popular American craze, a distinctive, maybe stereotyped, feature of the Jazz Age, the flappers and the era of Prohibitionism. As we discovered above, the dance would have been performed in many nightclubs and streets of New York. Still it was said to have been “officially” presented in the all-Black Broadway show Runnin’ Wild (1923). The show was one of the earlier Arfican - American Broadway successes. There it was danced to the hit song “The Charleston” by the Black American composer James P. Johnson.
In 1925 an African American performer Josephine Baker introduced the Charleston dance in Europe during her Parisian tour “Le revue negre”. Short after the Charleston dance soon became international craze.
Later in 1928 Joan Crawford paid a tribute to the Charleston in a film “Our Dancing daughters”. The Charleston was the all favourite dance to watch and to do.
It is hard to find a full objective story of the Charleston dance. The history of it may be far richer than we know. We can only trace it back as much as we have sources to look into.
Which leads to me this amazing quote by Cholly Atkins. He is talking about the origins of the Charleston dance in his book “Class Act”:
(..) Charleston step (...) We think it came up from South Carolina with its name intact and was introduced in a Broadway show, Running’ Wild. That’s what I was always told. But see, this thing is really complex because of all the interweaving and overlapping that happened. There was so much cross fertilisation from one venue to another – from the street , to the theatre, to the dance hall, to the nightclub. /…/ All of those dances came right out of the authentic jazz and were choreographed for stage
The Charleston dance as many other authentic and vernacular jazz dances is rooted in African tradition. It evolved through time, changed depending on who performed it and where, and by how it was presented on stage and film.
Yet due to little or no documentation of black Charleston dancers, the commonly known image connected to the Charleston dance is a white flapper girl. Though it does not present a full picture. Either through destruction, non documentation or deliberate white washing these recordings are sadly not with us. Hence we must fill in the gaps.
For my part, this dance is at the heart of everything we do in Lindy Hop, and solo jazz dance. It goes without saying that it is beautiful to dig deeper and fully understand it. I have tried my best to honour this dance, and teach as much as I have learned about it in my courses “Secrets of Charleston 20s”. This course aims to present you with the main steps, variations, and movements of this incredible dance form. You can check the subscription plan here.
Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning, Cynthia R. Millman
The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances by Mark Knowles
Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970 by Emery, Lynne Fauley
A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History by Alphonso Brown
The Cradle of JAZZ. Reverend Daniel Jenkins and his orphanage band
Jenkins Orphanage Band gave African American boys another chance at life
"Jenkins Orphanage " by Julie Hubbert
The Gullah Gechee people
The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
(Solo) Jazz dance is an umbrella term collecting many dancing styles with different history. Let’s clarify a very common and equally most confusing topic of what is the difference between vernacular, authentic, modern and solo jazz dance. This way we can understand the characteristics and history behind each better.
To be proficient in any specific or chosen art form, one needs to know the history, the journey of the specific creative expression and the aesthetic in question
According to Patricia Cohen, Master Registered Dance Educator, jazz dance evolved through the first half of the 20th century to include elements of both Africanist and European dance. In order to better understand what jazz dance is we need to refer to it as a continuum, based in West African roots with diverging vernacular and theatrical branches. Each of the branches are continually creating new offshoots that gradually but inevitably generates newer blended jazz dance forms.
Jazz dance tree
The history of jazz dance is best understood by thinking of it as a tree.
The roots of jazz dance are African. Its trunk is vernacular, shaped by European influence, and exemplified by the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. From the vernacular have grown many and varied branches, including tap, Broadway, funk, hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, Latin, pop, club jazz, popping, B-Boying, party dances, and more.
Interestingly, today the term “jazz dance” can be confusing as to what it refers to. Nowadays, it is often connected to modern dance (which is a fusion between jazz dance and contemporary) and ballet-based dance forms, which carry some jazz dance characteristics but are only loosely (or not at all) connected to jazz music. Although from the end of the 1910’s term “jazz dance” was referring to black dance forms that are deeply connected to jazz music styles.
The term “authentic jazz dance” is a good alternative to use today in order to be understood correctly when referring to the original black jazz dance forms.
Let’s start our journey through the jazz dance history by clarifying the general confusion that is often made with the names.
What is solo jazz (dance)? Is it the same as authentic or vernacular jazz?
Nowadays the swing dance community refers to solo jazz dance (jazz steps/ vintage jazz/ jazz roots) as dancing alone to jazz music styles. It comes without any influences of ballet or any other contemporary techniques. It is mainly characterised by improvisation, syncopated steps and rhythms, call and response to music, all while featuring the vocabulary and steps of the vernacular jazz tradition.
Solo Jazz can be danced free and improvised or in routines such as Shim Sham Shimmy, Big Apple or Tranky Doo.
Essentially, it is a general term to group many dance styles under one “umbrella” name. It can refer to anything from the pre-cakewalk dances of mid -19th century to post war era styles and be bop.
What is the difference between authentic and vernacular jazz?
Let’s first understand the meaning of the word “authentic”, which is of undisputed origin and not a copy, genuine. The term “authentic jazz dance” is in use from the end of the 1950’s when writer and researcher Marshall Stearns began to use it, in the attempt to differentiate it from the modern jazz dance which has little or nothing to do with jazz music.
Authentic jazz is vernacular jazz from the early 20th century and it includes the Cakewalk, the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Lindy hop.
Authentic jazz movements like the Boogies, the Suzie Q (Susie Q), the Tacky Annie (Tack Annie), can be seen in chorus line dancers performing in "soundies" (a type of short musical clips), vaudeville acts, musicals of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. They could also include tap, toe-heels steps, shuffles, the over-the-top, adding syncopations and rhythms to the music it was danced to. All of these movements can be described as vernacular due to the common origin they share: African-American social dances born from everyday life.
Authentic jazz brings together the elements of African-American vernacular, traditional dance. These elements are the individuality of the dancer, polyrhythmic patterns in addition to an already syncopated music, vitality and dynamism, improvisation, blended with a taste of personal exploration and freedom in composition. This is why it is continuously evolving, as it still is today.
Vernacular dances are dances which have developed naturally as a part of everyday culture within a particular community. In contrast to the elite and official culture, vernacular dances are usually learned naturally without formal instruction. Marshall and Stearn refer to vernacular jazz dance in its "street" form, in contrast to the show business form.
In “Steppin’ on the blues”, by Jacqui Malone, we read: “[...] the term vernacular refers to dance performed to the rhythms of African American music: dance that makes those rhythms visible”.
“[...] vernacular dance. It derives not from the “academy” but from the farms and the plantations of the South, slave festivals of the North [...]. Their work movements become dance movements and so do their play movements ; and so do all the movements they use every day, including the way they walk, stand, turn, wave, shake hands[…]”
from Albert Murray, Stomping the blues, p. 24 of Steppin’ the blues, J. Malone
In the book “Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader”, edited by Julie Malnig, the terms “social”, “vernacular” and “popular” are used interchangeably, although they carry slightly different connotations. Social carries a sense of dressiness and elevated environment, popular bespeaks widespread acceptance.
Most of the social and jazz dances described above are vernacular in the sense they spring from the lifeblood of communities and subcultures and are generally learned informally, through cultural and social networks
Julie Malnig, Introduction, p. 4
According to Dollie Henry and Paul Jenkins, the early development of the jazz vernacular was influenced by dance steps and movements that can be recognised from the traditional African-American dance vocabulary and accompanying music. Although many of these have been lost, another part is still visible in derivative jazz dance styles like
-The Lindy (hop)
Its hallmarks are improvisation and spontaneity, propulsive rhythm, call and response patterns, self expression, elegance and control.
As Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver state, vernacular and authentic jazz are similar but not the same. All authentic jazz is vernacular jazz, but vernacular jazz is not limited to authentic jazz. While authentic jazz is vernacular jazz from the early 20th century, vernacular jazz refers to more than one period. It is fluid and constantly evolving.
The authors of the “jazz dance styles” article highlight the following dance styles as branches of vernacular jazz dance today: hip hop, funk (urban funk), street jazz dance (L. Guarino and W. Oliver, Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches).
What is modern jazz?
In the UK throughout the 1970’s and 80’s the term modern jazz was generally used to describe traditional jazz dance as described above.
What is jazz in the academic dance world?
Jazz dance took on a metamorphosis during the 1950s with innovators such as Katherine Dunham, Jake Cole, and Bob Fosse.
In the academic dance world, what today is meant for “jazz” is basically a modern style that combines ballet technique, useful for jumps, leaps and pirouettes with elements of modern and contemporary dance. It is mainly characterised by body alignment, with the addition of contractions and tilts; it also includes percussive movement and fluid movement in a juxtaposition. Nevertheless, there’s still room for experimenting, hybridising and improvising.
Katherine Dunham reinforced jazz dance’s connection with its African origins through a dominating feminine energy and a style of dance. The style involved flexible torso movements, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, polyrhythm combined with ballet technique. She is credited for shaping the modern jazz dance style and technique. Katherine Dunham technique was the result of African-Caribbean dances combined with ballet which was a signature element of her choreographies. This was the starting point for modern dance to evolve.
In the meanwhile, Bob Fosse was highly influential in the development of jazz dance in movies. He was building upon Jack Cole’s popularisation of Theatrical jazz dance, whilst also weaving burlesque and vaudeville stylisations into his choreography.
The transformation of jazz dance into theatrical jazz dance and the important role of professional technique and choreography, created “modern jazz dance”.
Pearl Primus was an American dancer, choreographer and anthropologist also gave her contribution to the development of modern dance. Like Katherine Dunham she was deeply interested in the African cultural heritage and how African traditional dances could play a key role in the development of modern American dance. She is credited to have presented African dance to American audiences, giving voice and dignifying vernacular traditional dances as true art forms.
As a dancer, Primus was distinctive in other ways. When her style is compared to that of the other leading black dancer, Katherine Dunham, it is clear that one of the few things they had in common was their use of dance elements from Africa and the Caribbean (from Perpener III 162-163, African-American concert dance).
To sum up, by using Lindsay Guarino words, jazz dance has roots in West African traditional dance. It came to America via the transatlantic slave trade and then emerged as jazz in the 20s, 30s and 40s — which we now call the Jazz Era. Later it made it's way on to theatre stage, where stories were told through jazz dance, and covered its commercial side in film production.
Solo jazz dance is a general term used in nowadays swing dance community. It groups many dance styles that can refer to anything from the pre-cakewalk dances to post war era styles and be bop.
Authentic jazz is a term in use from 1950’s by Marshall Sterns, to describe vernacular (traditional) jazz dances that refer to the early 20th century. It includes the Cakewalk, the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Lindy hop.
Vernacular jazz is a term that refers to more than one period. Vernacular dances are the ones which have developed naturally as a part of everyday culture within a particular community.
Modern jazz dance is a term used in the academic dance world. It refers to a modern style that combines ballet technique with elements of contemporary and African - derived dances (such as isolations, loose torso etc.).
Here on Secrets of Solo you can discover and learn solo jazz (authentic jazz and vernacular jazz) steps and choreographies. Our online solo jazz dance classes pay homage to the creators of these steps, and we try to pass on these traditions to current generations.
As the styles are continuously evolving we feel it is our responsibility to keep pushing the boundaries. Therefore more and more modern styles such as contemporary, waacking, vogue, and house are entering into our teaching repertoire. Consider signing up for Secrets of Solo online dance classes. You can check subscription plans here.
Bibliography and references:
The Essential Guide to Jazz Dance, Dollie Henry, Paul Jenkins
Jazz Dance: A History of its Roots and Branches
Representing Jazz, Krin Gabbard
Stomping the blues, Albert Murray
Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader
Modern Jazz dance. 1971, Dolores Kirton Cayou,
Anthology of American Jazz dance Evanston. Illinois, USA, 1975, Gus Giordano
Creque Harris, Leah (1991). The Representation of African Dance on the Stage: From the early black musical to Pearl Primus. Atlanta, GA: Emory University
African-American Concert Ham The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond John 0. Perpener III
Co - writer and editor Ksenia Parkhatskaya