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

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.

Strut

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

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.

 

Earl Snakehips Tucker, eccentric jazz dancer
Earl Snakehips Tucker, eccentric dancer known for his “snake hips” dance. Earl "Snakehips" Tucker in about 1930.
NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

 

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

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.

Relations can be found with Patting juba and the Ring shout dance. A good reference: About the Ring shout and Plantation dance ring shout. 

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.

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston
Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston (Folies Bergere 1926)
Walery, Polish-British, 1863-1929/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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 dancer Ann Pennington
January 1927 issue of Photoplay of Ann Pennington teaching Felix do the “Black bottom dance”.

 

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.

Broadway jazz

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.

Broadway and theatrical jazz Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon onstage in 'Damn Yankees' (1958) Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.

Boradway Jazz dance Bob Fosse style
Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” from the 1969 film Sweet Charity.

Theatre jazz

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.

 

Final word

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.

 

References

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.

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

Discover how to improve your solo jazz dance with 3 essential habits. Learn how to improve and help you refine your solo jazz movement and style.

1. Film yourself, film yourself, film yourself

The great Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in their latter years would spend large parts of a studio budget on months of pre-production and filming of dance rehearsals. They knew that only through watching themselves back on camera could they see how their movements and dance actually looked. At times Fred Astaire would insist on having three cameras filming him from three different angles while dancing. That allowed him to see what the best angle for the movements and the best viewpoint for the dance was. Both of them had the experience of watching themselves back on tape and in so many movies. They could learn more about themselves and perfect their dance: style, lines, and angles.

Fast forward to 2020 and we can all do this, practically for free, yet take it for granted. So here’s my first advice:

Go buy a simple tripod or gorilla clamp for your phone and record your practice sessions

Why is it important to film your solo jazz practice?

Be your own coach

It is wonderful to have a private Solo jazz dance class, to be tête-à-tête with the teacher in a dance room. You can always rely on that he/she will make notes on what is working and what not and will help to make adjustments. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Some of us are lucky enough to practice alone in a dance studio with mirrors, though some only have space in the living room with no mirrors. Even with a mirror, you don’t see a true representation of the movements you are actually making (not the ones you think you are making).

It’s very hard to look at yourself from the distance in this scenario, to see yourself from the outside. Simply start a new practice habit, film yourself and review it later.  Be your own coach. If you are learning solo jazz dance online this is especially important.

Discover your strengths and weaknesses, to improve your solo jazz dance

From my own experience, I can tell that I improved so much from being my own dance mentor. After each practice, I have the same habit. I go for a little ritual. I take a coffee on a square next to my home and watch the videos of my practice. Even though I was not always happy when I saw the videos, it taught me a lot. Certainly watching the playback taught me throughout the year to accept myself, to love myself and my movements more. It also helped me improve how I worked with my face and arms. I used to have this black depressive look on my face while I concentrated so hard. I went through the acceptance phase and together with it started to learn more about what makes my dance mine, what are my strengths, how I can improve and control every part of my body from my face, to my fingers, to my toes and arms.

Filming yourself while dancing is the fastest step to seeing where your weaknesses and strengths are.

Additionally, reviewing practice videos taught me to improve a lot of elements in my solo jazz dance and in my swing dancing And Lindy hop. For instance, for a long time, I was unhappy with the work of my arms and palms. They were dead, not expressive and most of the time in a fist position. Noting that on the video and wanting to change helped me develop different ways of practicing and focusing on just that element of my Solo Jazz dance.

Here is an example of one of my personal practice sessions. Here I work on another element that I always wanted to improve - rhythm dancing. I created a task for myself to use swinging 8th note as much as I can.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B6ptpu0FHxV/

Take the first step towards your own style in solo jazz dance

As much as making a video of my dance practice helped me to see the potential for improvement, it can also help us find our “diamond”. That thing that is so unique to only you, that makes you different and makes you you,  - your strength. It is precious to recognise your strengths.

We are all very good at going to a dance event and judging others. We have an incredible ability no matter what level of the dancer we are to see the faults in others and recognise them: “oh he’s very stiff”,  “she keeps repeating the same moves”, “he is off time”, etc. Equally, we can see the good things: “wow, his footwork is so precise”, “her arms are like wings” or “he just delivers the dance so well!”. This means we inherently understand for ourselves what we like and don’t like in dance.  It’s easy, so let's make a practice habit of it when we work on our solo jazz and let’s use it to our advantage.

Film yourself, watch the recaps and give yourself an honest review of your dance movement and how you would like to see it improve.

Ask yourself...

Simply doing this does not mean it will improve, but you will know what you need to work on. Ask yourself, what is the ideal image of yourself on the dance floor or stage? What are the key things in your solo jazz dancing you need to improve and what habits do you need to develop them? Next, practice to work on the element you chose to improve again. By making it a practice habit, you can go deeper into this process and advance. This will open a path of refining your style.

If you really want to add focus, and intensity to this system, plan on releasing your practice video online. When we are learning solo jazz dance online, and taking online solo jazz dance classes we feel alone and safe. This is great, but sometimes a bit of judgement can be good, to help you focus. Nothing will make you focus, and try to refine and improve your dancing more than this. Anyone that follows my Instagram page @secretsofsolo will see how many practice videos I release. What people don’t know is, that for every video I release, there are 20 others that I don’t release.

practice videos

In some small way, these are mini-performances, and knowing that I will release the video puts me in that mindset. Which is the exact mindset you need, to push you to improve your dancing, and ask the hard questions.

2. Set goals and time limits before practice

Online solo jazz dance classes are great, and I really believe Secrets of Solo is an amazing way to learn solo jazz dance. But it has one downside. Although I have done everything to create a system to work through, I can’t tell you when to start each day, or how to frame a practice session.

What is so great about a live class is you arrive, you warm-up, work on something, and most importantly it ends. Usually, the class ends with a recap and the teacher saying “great job, see you next week”. You don’t get this in online learning, and although subtle, this difference is essential. Here is how my online learning used to go. I’d open a video, try a few moves, realize it was difficult and maybe give up. How sad is that! I'd love to emphasise on how important it is to leave each practice session with a sense of growth, a sense of development no matter how small. As Tony Robbins says “The fastest way to happiness is growth”

The fastest way to happiness is growth

Prepare for the next practice

No one will give you that “great job” with online learning, and online dance classes, so you have to do it yourself. So here's a little advice on habits. Before you practice, even the day before, open up some videos, find a move, or choreography, or frame you like, and set an intention. “Tomorrow I will spend 30 minutes learning this one thing” or “Tomorrow I will learn that thing” (with no time limit, instead of goal setting). At the end of your set time, no matter how the practice went, say “Well done, you came and practiced” to yourself, and feel good about it. And that’s the key, you will leave the dance session feeling like you did something. There is nothing else you need to do.

To become a better dancer you just need to show up and practice, consistently, no matter how short the session

It is not important what level of dancer you are and even if you practice only 10 minutes a day - you will improve. You will be better than yourself who didn't do that. Will it be as much as someone who practices for two hours a day? Probably not. But better than your former self, 100%, and, to emphasise, it gives a sense of growth, a sense of the development,  happiness and a desire to do it again. You will be the dancer you want to be, in just small daily steps.

A wise man doesn’t compare his development in comparison to others but in comparison to the person, he was yesterday.

3. Write down everything you do while practicing solo jazz

We have a great tracking system on Ksenia's Secrets of Solo. It shows what you’ve already learned and gone through and gives a sense of progress. We get our little gold tick after each lesson. For those that don’t know, you get a certificate when you complete a full course. But maybe 8 weeks down the road you won’t remember how a practice session actually went.

Start taking a journal or make it a habit to keep notes about your dancing on your computer.

Take 2 or 3 minutes after each dance practice session for a quick “resume”. What did I practice? What did I learn? Why didn’t it work? Was I distracted, if so why? How can I remove distractions and focus? Did I have a clear intention before the practice? Did I have a goal and did I accomplish it? What’s my goal for tomorrow's dance training?

Tracking your progress

This simple method of tracking and monitoring practice will keep you informed, motivated, and goal orientated. You will be able to look back at any time over the year, and realize “Yes, I did a lot of work, I have improved, good job”. It is exactly this motivation we need to show up the next day, and the next day again. Who wants to go back to the thing that makes them feel bad and lower their self-esteem every day? Though we do have to understand why something made us feel bad during the practice, in order to work on it, we still need to leave each practice session feeling good.

How to improve your solo jazz dance, just do this:

Set fixed-length sessions, with goals, film them and write it down after.

A great habit to improve your solo jazz dance. This way you can become your own coach. You’ll see what you have worked on and you’ll see where you are putting your time. Comes a time when you feel low and like you are not improving, you can go back 3 or 6 months and watch that old training video. When you compare it to today’s one you will see the changes. After all you’ll get that sense of accomplishment that is missing from online dance teaching. It will indeed motivate you to practice, which is the only thing you need to do.

Just small regular, consistent, focused dance practice sessions, with recorded feedback

Finally, if you are a premium member to Ksenia's Secrets of Solo, send me one of those practice sessions and ask me for advice. Personal feedback will help you more than anything to improve your solo jazz dance. What do I think are the key things you should work on? We are all terrified to film ourselves but know that no one is judging you. We are all on the same road, just different parts of it. So someone further down the road will only see themselves five or ten years ago. Doesn't matter if you are a touring solo performer next year, or can now simply bounce in time, as long as it’s an improvement for you.

Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

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