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 dances

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.

Cakewalk

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.

Cake walk dance, ragtime, black male dancers
Doing the Cake Walk. Antique French Postcard c.1911

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

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.

 

Foxtrot

 

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.

irene and vernon castle demonstrate fox trot ragtime dance
The Castles Demonstrate the Fox Trot for the Washington Times January 25, 1915 "Trotting to the steps of the Castle Fox"

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

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

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.

20s style

Closed face to face position was typical for the 20s style. The footwork mainly consisted of Charleston 20s twists.

30s style

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 dances

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.

"Flea hop"

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

Balboa swing dance style created in balboa town Newport Beach, California.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”.

Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker lindy hop social swing dance
Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker demonstrating steps of The Lindy Hop. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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.

Hellzapoppin'

The most famous Lindy Hop video is from "Hellzapoppin'" film, 1941

  1. The film features The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (so called "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers"):
  2. William Downes/Overalls & Frances "Mickey" Jones (0:39)
  3. Billy Ricker/Chef's Hat & Norma Miller (1:09)
  4. Al Minns/White Coat-Black Pants & Willa Mae Ricker (1:29)
  5. 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.

So what is Jitterbug?

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.

Negative meaning

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.

P.S.

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

 

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.

Jenkins Orphanage band, the history of The Charleston dance and step
Jenkins Orphanage Band, South Carolina, Charleston. Many scholars attribute the spread of the Charleston dance to the boys from the band.

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 "the Lion" Smith, jazz pianist who tells a history of Charleston dance
Willie "the Lion" Smith, jazz pianist. Harlem, NY (by Arnold Newman, 1960)

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.

 

the history of charleston step, how white ladies imitaded the charleston from the boys in Jenkins Band
A group of flappers imitating the Charleston alongside the Jenkins Band on Franklin Street ca 1920's

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.

Conclusion

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.

Resources

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

Dolly Henry

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.

jazz dance tree, vernacular, authentic, modern jazz dance
The jazz dance tree, by Kimberly Testa (In L. Guarino and W. Oliver, Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches).

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.

Pepsi Bethel solo jazz dancer what is solo jazz
Alfred "Pepsi" Bethel was a jazz dancer, choreographer, and leader of the Pepsi Bethel Authentic Jazz Dance Theater. He is known for choreographing the Lindy Hop jazz routine Tranky Doo. Pepsi Bethel 1977. Nathaniel Tileston photo in New York July 1977 at Clark Center Dance Festival

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?

Authentic 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 Jazz

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

-Cakewalk
-Charleston
-Hoffin'
-Tap dance
-The shuffle
-Turkey trot
-Buzzard lope
-Truckin
-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.

Katherine Dunham modern jazz dance
Katherine Mary Dunham was an African-American dancer, choreographer, author, educator, anthropologist, and social activist.

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.

Jack Cole theatrical modern jazz dance
Jack Cole, as an American dancer, choreographer, and theatre director known as "the Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance"
Bob Fosse modern broadway jazz dancer
Choreographer Bob Fosse leads dancers for the musical "Pleasures and Palaces" he directed in 1965.

The transformation of jazz dance into theatrical jazz dance and the important role of professional technique and choreography, created “modern jazz dance”.

Eartha Kitt modern jazz dancer
Eartha Kitt, foreground, and James Dean in a Dunham dance class in the early 1950s .Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos

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.

Pearl Primus vernacular african modern jazz dance
Pearl Primus, a dancer, choreographer, and proselytizer for African dance, trained at the New Dance Group and worked with Asadata Dafora

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).

Conclusion

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

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