(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

Solo Jazz dance has gone through many changes over the years, but learning the origins of the classic and popular solo jazz dance steps is key to growing as a jazz dancer. Here I give a brief overview of the history of some of the most popular and still used solo jazz dance steps.

Jazz is an African - American dance form that has West African roots. Knowing the roots and history of the solo jazz dance steps is important not only in terms of appreciation of the culture and it's creators, it will also help you discover and embody your solo jazz dance movement on a deeper level, so you understand the “why” not just the “how”.

Learning the vocabulary of classic Solo jazz dance is essential if you would like to "speak" the language of the style. It will then allow you to be able to create, grow, invent and improvise in solo jazz dance and to jazz music and its related styles. Improvisation is the identity of all jazz dance.

Groove Walk or Walking with a groove

African - Americans “refine all movement in the direction of dance - beat elegance. Their work movements become Solo jazz dance movements and so their play movements; and so, indeed, do all the movements they use every day , including the way they walk, stand, turn, wave, shake hands, reach, or make any gesture at all” (“Steppin’ on the Blues”)

Groove walk is an essential building block of solo jazz dance. Pretty much any step you do, you do with the bounce and groove. And it is already enough to start dancing to swing and jazz.

You will discover that many steps are, in fact, just a groove walk with a certain “spice” like twist of the feet or knees or with an accent, that are composed or looped (check out fall of the log, suzy Q, cross step, etc).

Polyrhythm’s in Solo Jazz

When groove walking you can experience one of the main components of African And African American black dance traditions - polyrhythm. Your body is vibrating in 4/4 feel, pulsing and bouncing to every beat. You step and produce rhythm in your feet only half time on 1 and 3. And a final touch is a snap on back beat on 2 and 4!

Author Welsh-Asante lists seven "senses"• of African dance that must be present: polyrhythm, polycentrism, curvilinearity, dimensionality, epic memory, holisticness and repetition. (African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry, p.212)

To sum up, polyrhythm is created when several parts of the body produce different rhythms simultaneously. This sense can be related to all and every single step in solo jazz dancing.

•There are characteristics that I describe in full in the brief history of Black dances and senses of solo dance. Senses make up the integral composition regardless of geography or theme. Characteristics refer to the qualities of the dance itself.

Stomps in Solo Jazz

One of the most beautiful percussive solo jazz steps. As we discussed previously the body position and the intention in black dances is directed to the earth. There is no better movement than stomps to represent that connection with the ground.

“Many (African) dances are directed towards earth, acknowledging its function as a food source, but also as a resting site for their ancestors. Both nourishing food and wise ancestor knowledge feed the individual and the group; accordingly, the feet are used to maximise and emphasise the relationship between humans and the earth. Flat feet are used to shuffle, stomp, brush, graze to otherwise embrace the ground with the entire foot. Many times, when the foot is lifted, the emphasis is to return the foot to the ground as quickly as possible, maintaining contact with the earth.” (“Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities”)

 

Kick Ball Change

In the blog post on the brief history of Black dances I talked about Syncopation & Swinging 8th note as the fundamentals of Solo jazz dance. Swinging 8th note is a name of the rhythm and it has many names and shapes in solo jazz dance. The rhythm is one, the shapes are many. Kick Ball change is one of them and is one of the most commonly used shapes in many African and Black American dances.

Propulsive rhythm is one of the characteristics of the African-American dances. It is most important to hear and keep the beat (meaning the strong note, the pulse), but it is equally important to be able to embellish it and play with it. Kick Ball change step allows you to do that. Equally this step is a beginning of more complex footwork like Shorty George, Apple Jacks, Half time break, scissor kicks and so on.

Solo Jazz dance steps & their names

Next we will be moving on to a more choreographed footwork. A step is already a little sequence, a little choreography. It is always very interesting to look at the origins of the step as well as their names.

Names of African derived dances and steps are "speaking". Some of the steps carry names of the animals that they were imitating (Camel Walk), some carry the name of the creator (Shorty George), some just reflect the specific action (Shim Sham Shimmy).

Back in the days when there were no schools where you could go learn some tap or solo jazz dance. People were dancing on the street, practicing at homes, back stage or in the back yards. Each one was searching and creating for their own unique style and shapes. It was essential for a black dancer to be unique and recognisable, for that was the only way to get a gig or win a competition. It was a matter of getting paid and surviving.

Most of the time you would not want to teach anyone your step exactly for this reason. In fact, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson did, you would protect your “signature” steps by “trademarking” them and shaming copycats.

demonstration of important black dance culture representatives in America
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an African-American tap dancer, actor, and singer (1878 - 1949) The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Sometimes dancers would teach you their step and they would make sure you remember that it was their step, their name. That was the way they and their legacy could be remembered.

Here is how the great African American tap dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins speaks about the steps and their names in "Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins":

“Years ago, you could sit up and look at the chorus lines, all the dance steps that they were doing. Eventually somebody would come along and lift one of those combinations out and make a dance out of it, like The Suzie - Q or the boogie woogie. I think that’s how trucking’ came about. Now, trucking’ could have originally been a step that some choreography or producer saw a kid doing on the street. Maybe it didn’t even have a name first. On the other hand, some dancer in the chorus could have made it up. Most of the time we couldn’t trace exactly, where these authentic jazz steps and dances originated. It’s clear that they have evolved as a part of black dance styles. But all we really knew was that they were here!”

demonstration of important black dance culture representatives in America
Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles. Charles "Cholly" Atkins (1913 - 2003) - an African - American tap and jazz dancer, choreographer.

Solo Jazz dance step 1 - Tackie Annie

Tackie Annie or Tack Annie is a step that was originally a tap dance step executed with brushes, shuffles and taps.

There are plenty of stories about the name origin of this typical authentic jazz move.

“Steps were normally given their names either in connection to the imitation source (animal for example) or association of the move or after the person who created them and did them better than anyone else. Shorty Snowden made up the Shorty George , and "a shuffle step known as the Tack Annie was by a pickpocket named Annie"
- “Dancing, a Guide for the Dancer You Can be”

In “The World of Earl Hines”, Earl Hines, American jazz pianist, acknowledges that in Chicago during the mid - 1920s there was a woman named Tack Annie. She had a couple of girlfriends who looked after her. It appears that Tack Annie was the roughest woman he had ever seen in this life, so tough that it took several man to hold her down" (Dance, The World of Hines, p.35)

According to Harri Heinila, a Harlem jazz dance researcher, tap dancers Leonard Reed and William Bryant, who choreographed the Shim Sham, got the Tack Annie from a tap dancer called Jack Wiggins who did a thing called ‘Pull it’. He used to say to the audience: "Do you want me pull it". The answer was usually "Yes!".

Once he was performing to the audience, where was also his girlfriend Annie. Jack said those words again and added: "Annie next step may be tacky, but I gonna do it for you!"

 

Solo jazz dance step 2 - Fishtail

One of the characteristics of West - African tradition is animalistic imitations. You can definitely see it in many moves. Fishtail is one of them. The rich verbal vocabulary of vernacular black jazz dance movement as well often reflects the movement character and body usage, and in the face and hands. Look at the names of the steps such as Wing, Stomp, Fishtail, Black Bottom, Snake Hips and so on.

You can see Al Minns dancing fish tail in "The Spirit Moves" series:

Solo Jazz dance step 3 - The Charleston

Read the full article on History of the Charleston.

The Charleston dance had possibly the greatest influence on the American culture. Enslaved Africans brought it 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 European Americans Africanisms in American Culture, p.52

The craze of the 20’s went into full swing when the choreographer Elida Webb Dawson, African- American dancer and choreographer at the Cotton Club in Harlem, introduced the Charleston in Runnin' Wild (1923) - an American black Broadway musical comedy show. Her set of movements was accompanied by “The Charleston” tune by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack. The characteristic Charleston beat, which James P. Johnson said he first heard from Charleston City dockworkers, incorporating the clave rhythm.

During “The Roaring Twenties'', Josephine Baker, famous black American dancer, introduced this dance to European audiences.

Charleston step has it’s eras and it changed with time and place. It started as a step with twists in a lazy sort of way , then transformed into a crazy wild kicking move.

Here is an alternative thought to the origins of The Charleston step and dance from Cholly Atkins from "Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins"

“Take the Charleston step, for example. 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”

Solo Jazz dance step 4 - Fall Off The Log

"Fall off the log (falling-off-the-log / falling off a log)- twisting movement consisting of shuffles and the alternate crossing and recrossing of one foot over the other, the body leaning sideways - "Brotherhood in Rhythm"

Falling-off-a-log is as well described as a step similar to Buffalo tap dance step but with a leaning pause added). It is a so- called travel step. The main rhythmic idea of the step is accentuating the backbeat on the kick. In that moment the whole body gravitates to the ground. The art of mimicry and imitation is strongly developed in black dances. Falling off a log imitates this actual process of the falling.

Solo Jazz dance step 5 - Suzy Q

Susie Q, Suzie Q or Suzy-Q is a vernacular dance step, with a shuffling and sliding step (as well performed in tap) that was introduced at the Cotton Club in 1936. The origin of the name "Suzie Q" is uncertain. There is a the reference to the name in the 1936 song Doin' the Suzie-Q by Lil Hardin Armstrong

You can see Suzie Q performed by Al Minns, Pepsi Bethel, Leon James, Ester Washington, Sandra Gibson in The Spirit Moves film:

Solo Jazz dance step 6 - Camel Walk

"The dances of the enslaved population were often named and choreographed after the movements of animals" - (Ring Shout, Wheel About)

Camel walk is one of them. It is a solo jazz dance step that is closely resembling the knock - kneed gait of a camel.

Solo Jazz dance step 7 - Boogie back

Here is an amazing solo jazz dance step that has several layers to it. You can make it with loads of body movement and vibration and as well try to swing it by adding the already familiar kick ball change, swinging 8th step. The intention of the step is toward the ground, the earth or to the feet of other dancers, to support the fire and energy in the jam circle or cypher.

 

Solo jazz dance step 8 - Shorty George

The Shorty George, a signature step of Lindy hop and jazz, was named after an African -American jitterbug and Lindy hop dancer “Shorty” George Snowden (4 July 1904 - May 1982) in the 1930s. He could do this step underneath his partners legs.

Shorty George Snowden, the creator of Shorty George solo jazz dance step and his partner Big Bea.

Snowden was an acclaimed dancer at the Savoy Ballroom. The story is interesting. George Snowden was a short man, only about 5 feet tall and he had quite an impressively tall dance partner called Big Bea It was their “thing”, the feature. They really crafted their dance art around his height. George would jump in a split to have Big Bea turn under arms.

Shorty is often given credit for giving Lindy Hop its name. After Charles Lindbergh's (known as "Lucky Lindy") as the newspapers said "hopped" across the Atlantic, there was a charity dance-marathon in New York City in 1928. A reporter saw Snowden break away from his partner and improvise a few steps. "What was that!?" he asked. Snowden thought for a few seconds and replied, "I'm doin' the Hop...the Lindy Hop". And so the name stayed. (source Savoy Style)

In jazz dance only when the film production became more popular the forms and style started to be documented.

Solo Jazz dance step 9 - Applejack

Apple Jacks, Applejack (dance) is a jazz dance step developed in 1940's

“Applejack (1930s–1950s) liquor, especially bootleg liquor, so called because apples were used as the main ingredient. Applejack n. (1950s–1960s) all-purpose tag name for dances” (Juba to jive: the dictionary of African-American slang, p.10)

 

Solo Jazz dance step 10 - Half Break

Rhythm break steps are certainly a characteristic of the African dance tradition. In Tap and jazz half break is a step on 4 beats and starts on a backbeat. Break steps are the ones that are normally performed at the end of the jazz phrase or form, to seal or finalise the phrase. The success to perform this step is release. Remember, the great African American composer Duke Ellington said "In jazz we don't push it, we let it fall". Keep it in mind when doing ball change, which is a swinging 8th note. To syncopate it needs a drop. All the rhythm break steps want to gravitate to earth.

Solo Jazz dance step 11 - Full Break or T.O.B.A break

Another name for this step is T.O.B.A. break. T.O.B.A. break was a part of Shim Sham live choreography created by Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant around 1927. The break is an 8-count step and therefore carries a “second” name “full break”.

T.O.B.A. stands for Theatre Owners Booking Association. It was a black vaudeville circuit that developed and promoted black talent and catered to black audiences in the 1920's. Among black dancers the acronym TOBA was read as “Tough on Black Actors”.

Here is Chester Whitmore, American dancer, musician and choreograoher, protege of Fayard Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers), showing and talking about versions of T.O.B.A break:

Solo Jazz Dance steps as improvisational “break”

“Improvisation, for the black idiomatic dancer … is the key element in the creation of vernacular dance. From the 19th century cakewalk through the Charleston of the twenties and the Lindy hop of the thirties and forties, Black dancers inserted an improvisational “break” that allowed couples to separate at various points so that they could have maximum freedom of movement” (The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, p.232)

It is important to mention that couple dances are a derivative from the European tradition in African American dances like cakewalk, Charleston, Lindy hop, shag, foxtrot, etc. There doesn’t seem to be any tradition of close embrace dances in west Africa. Dancing apart allows for the better dialog with the music.

However through improvisation, experimentation and imitation the early African - American inventors of the Lindy hop created a style that was uniquely their own, finding room for improvisation and exploration in a couples dance. While also allowing lots of space for break aways and solo moments to express your individuality fully.

This emphasis on solo dancing also becomes essential when we speak about Jam Circles and Jams, where dancers are encouraged to enter a circle of people, and dance at usually a very fast tempo to show their virtuosity, style and individual expression, again rooted in the African traditions of ring shouts and circles.

"Ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it"

No matter what steps you are doing the most important in jazz is style, musicality and personality. "Ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it" as the famous song goes. Jazz is an alive organism, it call for innovation, freshness and creativity. Knowing classic steps, their roots and origins is essential to move forward.

"A good dancers is the one who converses with music, clearly hears and feels the beat, and is capable of using different parts of the body to create visualisations of the rhythm" (Steppin' on the Blues, p. 15)

To me this video of Albert (Al) Minns and Leon James partying just says it all. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to own the party like these two incredible African American dancers.

 

As always this is a brief summary of some classic Solo Jazz Dance steps, there is so much to learn so get reading on the resources I citied below.

When you are learning solo jazz dance online, or taking online jazz dance classes, this is fundamental to your learning, and can only help to improve it. I know you may ask Ksenia is this necessary? or Ksenia is it more important I spend time on my dancing than learning? For me they come together, learn to dance online, then read books on the train, and practice in the office or near by. Take local classes nearby. All of this will help you on your journey to becoming an amazing solo jazz dancer!

 

Sources:

  1. Steppin’ on The Blues The Visible Rhythms of African American dance by Jacqui Malone
  2. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery By Katrina Dyonne Thompson
  3. Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities edited by Kariamu Welsh, Esailama Diouf, Yvonne Daniel
  4. Tappin’ at the Apollo: The African American Female Tap Dance Duo Salt and Pepper By Cheryl M. Willis
  5. Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins by Cholly Atkins, Jacqui Malone
  6. Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver
  7. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance By Anthea Kraut
  8. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry edited by Kariamu Welsh-Asante
  9. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader edited by Alexandra Carter, Jens Giersdorf, Yutian Wong
  10. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance by Jane Desmond
  11. Africanisms in American Culture edited by Joseph E. Holloway
  12. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture edited by Robert G. O'Meally
  13. Juba to jive: the dictionary of African-American slang by Clarence Major
  14. THE SPIRIT MOVES: A History of Black Social Dance on Film Screener  by Mura Dehn in 3 parts:
    1. Part 1 Jazz dance from turn of the century 'til 1950 (44 min.) 
    2. Part 2 Savoy Ballroom of Harlem, 1950's (34 min.) 
    3. Part 3 pt. 2: Postwar era, 1950-1975 (40 min.)

Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

Researched by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

Edited by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

A history of jazz dance and historic perspective helps us acknowledge tradition. Where jazz dance, and it’s related styles of Lindy hop, solo jazz, tap, shag etc. come from and pay respect to its origins and community.

When we talk about jazz dance we need to talk about the cultural history of jazz dance, we need to talk about black dances, and it’s African influences. It is impossible to think of the heritage and history of jazz dance and music in America without acknowledging its African roots.

Birth of the Jazz Dance

Today if you say the word “jazz” it almost has to go with a little add -on or description, for it carries many meanings and is quite a complex subject.

The roots of Jazz are African and, particularly, West African.

African dancer Issa Niang performing with touring Ballets Africans company. Location New York, NY, US Date taken February 1959 Photographer Ralph Morse. LIFE.com

In the beginning of the 17th century an enormous amount of African people were forced to the North American content and elsewhere to be then enslaved. During the slavery period African dance developed into African - American vernacular jazz dance culture. It is important to acknowledge the connection between the dances of traditional African cultures and the history of jazz dances of Black Americans.

Today we really can see how many branches of vernacular jazz dance, such as tap, broadway jazz, classical jazz, modern jazz, latin jazz , solo jazz and so on, developed.

The history of jazz dance and specifically Vernacular dances developed on plantations. Black dances such as buzzard lope, turkey trot had direct animalistic references. They were observed by white people who found the dances intriguing because of the vitality, expression, dynamism and freedom in improvisation.

Black dancers, on the other hand, observed white people dancing in salons and adopted the idea of close embrace in a couple dance, verticality and composition for their Cakewalks, Charleston and, later, the Lindy Hop.

Jazz dance developed through coming together, on American soil, of African and European culture. It was influenced by many factors such as mixing of African people from different tribes, mixing with European traditions and being influenced by it in the horrible circumstances of restrictions that were imposed upon slaves in regard to music and dance.

In order to understand what are the specifics of the Africanist influence in the history of jazz dance, we need to research its characteristics and fundamental elements.

Characteristics of black vernacular dance

The six definite characteristics of African American vernacular dance are rhythm, improvisation, control, angularity, asymmetry and dynamism

-"Steppin' on the Blues", p. 32

Bust A Move!! | 1943 Series 2/2 Photo by Black History Album on flickr . Dancer Katherine Dunham doing the Florida East-Coast shimmy with dancer Ohardieno during performance of show "Tropical Revue," New York, 1943. Photo by Gjon Mili. Life Photo Archives, © Time Inc., Courtesy of LIFE.com

Nowhere is African American style manifested more than in dance. Let's look into some of those characteristics closer.

Rhythm

“Rhythm is the architecture of being, the inner dynamic that gives it form, the pure expression of the life force” - (Thompson “African art in motion”, p.13 - 14)

African - American dance is a rhythm, beat - oriented dance. To be in the beat is essential and vital. If you dance fancy steps but you are outside of the beat, you are not living with the music, you are not dancing. Coming together with music, getting on the “beat train” and then embellishing the rhythm, adding something new is the heart of jazz dancing.

Control

 “Like all good dancers, practitioners of this style do not throw their bodies around; they do not cut completely loose. When the musical break comes , it is not a matter “of letting it all hang out,” but a matter of proceeding in terms of “ a very specific technology of stylisation. A loss of control and a loss of coolness places one squarely outside of tradition” ("Steppin' on the Blues", page 34)

Vernacular and jazz dance styles are expressive and might seem almost frantic  in comparison to stiff and even reserved European dance tradition. One might lose themselves in rhythms, shapes and energy when dancing. Though here comes a fascinating concept of “aesthetics of the cool”. The idea that we shouldn’t let the dance overwhelm us. By keeping a cool face expression and cool attitude we manage to have control in jazz dance, lightness and effortlessness in the movement. And you see this on so many black faces as they dance these dances, cool, calm and collected.

Asymmetry

 “It is the lack of symmetry which makes (African - American) dancing so difficult for white dancers to learn. The abrupt and unexpected changes. /.../ The presence of rhythm and lack of symmetry are paradoxical, but there they are” ("Steppin' on the Blues", page 35)

Asymmetry as characteristic is understood not only in the movements itself, but equally in the relationship between the dance and dancer state. “Although the dancer may be performing a fury of complex steps and figures they never lose the asymmetrical  juxtapositions of coolness, equilibrium and control” - African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry, p.107

Angularity

Simply explained, every posture is another angle. This concept can be quite a challenge for a body trained in European tradition of dance. In European dances transitions between postures are more fluid, that makes the difference between poses more imperceptible. In west African and many African derived dances transitions are more dramatic and even geometric. Angularity in jazz dance and solo jazz dance can be achieved with high control and tension - release approach.

In all African culture and doctrine we find angularity. Black non verbal communication is full with angles as well. Rex Stewart Jr.,  an American jazz cornetist, in Jazz Masters of 30’s talks about Louis Armstrong's personal style, that was “his loping walk, the cap on his head tilted at an angle, which back home meant: Look out! I am a bad cat -  don’t mess with me”  (The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, p. 233)

It is as well the African influence that gives jazz dance and solo jazz it's rhythmic component and as-symmetrical, angular forms.

Improvisation

Improvisation is what drew me to solo jazz dance and Charleston personally. When I was young I remember saying “Ksenia this is the exactly what you want to do, Ksenia this is freedom, this is liberation” and let’s face it, Black dances give you so much room to express yourself in the moment, as opposed to the European counterparts. Simply put into words, improvisation is creation on the spot, in that very moment. It’s a process of playing, experimenting with new ideas. While Improvising one is expected to stretch the tradition and bring something new to the table. All African - American social dances and music allow for some degree of improvisation, even in the performance.

As a trained competitive ballroom dancer I never heard or tried to express myself in a dance freely. In ballroom dance you follow quite strict technique and choreography. My instructors always said “Ksenia that’s not the right step... go again” It used to hurt me so much. It was such a controversy that I couldn’t do what I felt in the moment. The idea that you can make free choices and play with the beat and movements was for me Joy. Jazz dance and black dances such as African dance, House really are a process of continuous invention. A sense of play, curiosity and  bravery, deep connection to your own self and your body and music really are an essential part of improvisation, and when you get it right your face lights up with joy and feels it instantly.

“The African American aesthetic encourages exploration and freedom in composition. Originality and individuality are not only admired, they are expected. But creative must be balanced between the artist’s concept of what is good and the audience’s idea of what is good. The point is to add the tradition and extend it without straying too far from it” (Steppin’ on the Blues, page 35)

Lee Moates and Tonita Malau show their winning dance style during a Lindy Hop competition at the Savoy Ballroom on April 24, 1953. Hans Von Nolde / AP

Personality and individual voice are a vital part of the culture. In this dance tradition executing the dance exactly the same way as someone else is usually not valued.  When groups perform a number together, the audience expects each performer to bring his own personality to the overall style, in this way creating diversity within unity.

Fundamental elements of Jazz Dance

As we discussed, the roots of jazz dances lie in West African dance traditions. So many of the technical elements are opposite to the European tradition in dance. I’d like to cover the fundamentals of solo jazz & swing dancing such as posture, bounce (of feel, pulse), backbeat, swinging 8th note and syncopation.

The posture

It’s important to define the centre from where all the movement comes. In European dances (such as ballet, ballroom, folk dances of Europe, etc.) the centre of the body movement  is in the chest. When dancing those styles we tend to grow up and have a more erect spine with straightened limbs. We tend to search for symmetry and beauty in the form and the main trajectory of the movement is up.

While in African derived dance forms the centre is in the naval, we work with gravity and the intention and accent is towards the earth. That has an affect on the posture. As Kongo proverb goes "dance with bended knees, lest you be taken for a corpse".

“The bent knees and angulated bodies (of black dancers) ….were in striking contrast to the erect spines, straight legs, turned-out feet, and rounded arms of the European American dancing instructors” (Steppin’ on the Blues, page 49)

"To many western and central Africans, flexed joints represent life and energy, while straightened hips, elbows and knees epitomised rigidity and death" (from Steppin on the Blues")

The bounce

Bounce or pulse is an essential element of swing dancing and solo jazz. Steps may be similar in many dance styles, but the “feel” which is embodied in bounce or pulse is unique to a style. Bounce represents the timing of the music, the 4/4 pulse, it’s your “double bass” inside. When keeping the bounce, pulse steady and in time, you are your own metronome.

Solo Jazz dance movements are characterised by a weighted release into gravity, a dynamic spine and rhythms. When bouncing we should search for exactly that sensation. It is already a dance by itself.

While practicing bounce consider those ideas from the West - African movement. Those are comments gathered by Thompson in interviews with experts in dance in Western and Central Africa, from the book “Steppin’ on the Blues"

1. You should not align limbs in a too straight manner (Kongo)
2. You should dance bending deep. (Kongo)
3. Keep your elbows and hips close in to the body; you must move your entire body; vibrate the whole, but you must keep the movement self-contained, not to go too far out with the gestures and thrusts of the arms and legs (Kongo)

Backbeat In the history of Jazz dance and music

Backbeat is a term used to describe a heavy accent on 2 and 4 in 4/4 common time.

In the European music tradition it is common to stress only the strong beat which is 1 and 3. Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, and one of its main characteristics that defines the way we dance is the accentuation on the so-called "weak" or "backbeat", the 2 and 4.

"We don't snap our fingers on the beat. It is considered to be aggressive. In jazz we don't push it, we let it fall" as says genius African-American composer Duke Ellington

 

In a classic swing tune, normally, the bass player will either hit the strong beat 1 and 3 or “walk the line”, which means he will hit all 4 beats in a bar. In this case, we say the bass is walking. While the drummer is often doubling this pattern on the kick drum, swinging in 8 on the ride cymbal, and keeping the high hat on 2 and 4. This is the core basis of all swing music.

Syncopation & Swinging 8th note in Jazz dance

Albert Murray describes a jazz dancer as a percussive instrument in a dialog with musicians.  It’s interesting because when you hear even melodic instruments they play melodies in jazz in a percussive way. It is all about rhythms and that is African influence. When we talk about rhythm and rhythmic play in jazz we need to talk about swinging notes and syncopation.

A syncopated rhythm is created often using the swinging 8th notes. Syncopated note can fall directly before or behind the beat.

Swinging 8th note is a  rhythm that you need to know to dance basic vernacular jazz steps. It has this feeling of a fall, a hiccup the way it sounds. It encourages the feeling of a drop, release in the movement.

There are many steps that are representing the swinging 8th note in jazz such as triple step, stomp off and then all sorts of moves with ball change action ( kick ball change, hold ball change, slide ball change, etc). The rhythm is one, the shapes are many. A jazz dancer would always use this signature syncopation in the dance and improvisation.

Swinging 8th note speaks for itself. You swing the note. It’s important to know that you can swing any of the 4 notes that exist in the bar. Swinging 8th is the rhythm you will hear everywhere in jazz music.

It is also the key element of any musician, dancer or performer in Jazz. The most love and respect is given to those who “Really Swing”. So developing a deep understanding of this will help you dance this beautiful, elegant, exciting, spontaneous African American style of dance, including it’s “Roots and Branches”

 

This is just a very brief history of jazz dance and it’s links to Africa. There is a wealth of information on these dances which you can find below. Please do investigate further. Enrich your mind while your enrich your body so you can fully connect with the past, and the importance of it while dancing today. This is especially vital while learning solo jazz dance online, as often we can be isolated from the communities that would otherwise help us here. So if you are learning in an online context, I encourage you to explore this even more

 

Yours

Ksenia Parkhatskaya

Sources:

  1. Steppin’ on The Blues The Visible Rhythms of African American dance by Jacqui Malone
  2. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery By Katrina Dyonne Thompson
  3. Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities edited by Kariamu Welsh, Esailama Diouf, Yvonne Daniel
  4. Tappin' at the Apollo: The African American Female Tap Dance Duo Salt and Pepper By Cheryl M. Willis
  5. Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins by Cholly Atkins, Jacqui Malone
  6. Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver
  7. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance By Anthea Kraut
  8. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry edited by Kariamu Welsh-Asante
  9. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader edited by Alexandra Carter, Jens Giersdorf, Yutian Wong
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