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

Solo jazz is one of the best ways to help you improve your Lindy Hop. Lindy hop is a partnered dance that gives a lot of freedom to each partner. Even when dancing in close position or in a break away or swing out, there is so much freedom to improvise and express the music with your feet.

Every single great Lindy hopper in the old times and now are great solo jazz dancers. No wonder why? One truly can’t be without another.

Have you ever been in the situation where your partner decides to break away for some solo jazz magic, and rather than free, you felt alone, and very unsure? Do you often feel you are out of time, or blame others if you do feel that way? Or maybe you've seen a video of yourself afterward a couple dance and realised you may not look quite as elegant as you thought in that moment...then these tips are for you.

1. Want to dance well in couple, learn how to dance solo first

If you are struggling with balance, or, for instance, rotations and turns which is very common, when dancing Lindy hop, consider trying solo jazz. Practice those elements solo first and as a result you will massively improve your Lindy hop. The truth is your partner is not there to help you hold your balance or turn you. Your partner is there to communicate and co -create in a dance together. If you want to improve your Lindy hop, invest in your solo.

In order to learn how to turn, keep balance, and have a good posture you really need to practice those dance elements by yourself first.

When learning Lindy hop we are focusing on leading and following technique. Basically, how does communication in a couple happen, how can one body invite another body into different states and figures. But the essential, fundamental elements of jazz dances, like bounce (pulse), timing, syncopation, footwork, turns and many many more,  shall be practiced and learned in solo jazz, and independently of another person which is essential.

When you are confident in those, being in a couple and dancing Lindy hop will feel heavenly.

2. Improve your Lindy Hop by expanding and innovating your footwork

Develop intelligence in your feet. Only you are in charge of your footwork when dancing Lindy hop.  Your partner is not going to “inject” variations and lead you for solo steps. You have to work on that part yourself solo. The absolute best way to improve your footwork in Lindy hop is to work on your solo jazz.

What is in your feet is in your feet.  If you ever looked at professional Lindy hoppers and dreamed of being so playful and reactive with your feet, do know that it comes from solo jazz dance work. If you know how to do Shorty George and kick ball changes you can add a flavour during the 6 beat passes. Tacky Annies, Apple Jacks, Suzie Qs and scissor kicks can come in very exciting and handy when variating swing out. Lock turns can be a fantastic way to make your turns and under arms passes something spectacular and juicy.

3. Shine at the solo moments

I am sure you once were dancing with (or maybe you yourself is) a playful partner who loves once in a while to let the couple connection go for a moment of solo conversation. And maybe during that moment instead of going for a spotlight move you felt left alone, embarrassed and begging your partner to please come back into the safe shell of the couple...?

In this case, solo jazz is the way to happiness and jazz. Learn a couple of classic vernacular moves like boogie back, boogie front, TOBA break,  to know what to do and take the spotlight. Or even learn how to improvise in order to be fully reactive and in the moment respond to the moves of your partner. And if you want to be completely on top of your game, unlock Secrets of improvisation technique to be able to create a few exciting moves or variations and have a call and response conversation  with your partner.

So doing, you feel the music, you feel your partner and the two of you, together with the music will create a perfect, balanced triangle.

When you are dancing with your partner, for that two and a half to three minutes, you are in love with each other. You're corresponding with each other by the moves that you make. It's a love affair, between you and your partner and the music. You feel the music, you feel your partner, she feels you and she feels the music. So the three of you are together. You've got a triangle, you know. Which one do you love best? [Frankie laughs.]

- Frankie Manning

 

4. Variate your Lindy hop moves

The whole point of jazz is improvisation. Once the patterns, basic footwork and figures are in your system, fly away and variate them.

Improvisation and personality are the key points and characteristics of African derived black dances. Jazz is a continuum and its nature is to be continuously evolving with the influences of time and other people. Jazz is a continuous innovation based on strong tradition.

Let’s be honest, that is where the real fun in Lindy hop lies, - in creativity. In order to be creative with your body and footwork mainly, for jazz dances are footwork based dances, we need to learn the principles and the secrets of improvisation and variations. To do that we once again come to the home of solo jazz.

Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker lindy hop and solo jazz
Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker doing the Lindy Hop, 1943, photo by Gjon Mili, via LIFE.

In order to learn how to variate your triple step in swing out, it’s essential to understand what is triple step, how it can be done, what is swinging 8th note and syncopation. Finally, what are the ways and tools to variate a given step! Same goes for rock step, which is as well one of the most common steps in Lindy Hop and swing dances.

It’s this understanding and knowledge which will make a difference and progress. You can learn by doing solo jazz. Eventually, you will be able to dramatically improve your Lindy hop and shine on every single send out and triple step swivel.

If you are specifically interested in Variations, you can check a 4 volume online course "Variation Lab".

5. Don’t only feel good when doing the Lindy hop, look good

Dance is an aesthetic form. Dance is a combination of feel, time and shapes. And shapes shall be aesthetic. No matter much we emphasise the importance of the feeling when dancing swing dance, dance should as well look good.

Good lines and style don't only come from feeling good doing a move. That works as well, no doubt. Though, in some situation to get the right feel, you need to copy the shape of the move.

What “good look” means in a dance is an almost philosophical category indeed. Aesthetic does not necessarily mean beautiful.  To give an example, the famous choreographer  Bob Fosse invented his own signature style with the idea of “ugly movement”. Though he transformed “ugly” into aesthetically beautiful.

 

However in Lindy Hop the emphasis is mostly on the feeling. The feeling of your partner, lead and follow signals. In some ways you can forget to pay attention to how you are looking when you are dancing. Practicing Solo Jazz we practice the feel and the shape in a holistic way. We do look in the mirror to make sure the shapes are balanced and aesthetic. Working on your moves and shapes solo will significantly improve your Lindy Hop.

6. Find your style

We shall as well talk about the style. To have a style, your own recognisable style, is to be on top of the jazz game. We all have different bodies hence same move will, of course, look different on each one of us.

Unlocking the secrets of your movement and bringing out your own style can be a long process. But it’s a journey for a treasure worth taking. You can spend some time researching your body, your movement solo in front of the mirror or camera. Ask yourself what are your strengths? What exactly makes your movement yours?

Jean Veloz swivels are so distinctive. You can recognise her angular shapes with loads of shoulder and hip movement and upright posture.

And now look at Jewel McGowan with her fabulous extreme knee swivels and the arm behind.

One more interesting female Lindy Hopper Genevieve Grazis (Jenny Grey) P.S. Don't mind the clap on 1.

Look at The Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning and Willa Mae Ricker. The style is called Savoy Style. Low, fast and fierce. Frankie was the innovator and a creator of an acrobatics in Lindy. You can see he is bowing so low to his dance partner on the breakaway moments, when doing the kick back.

And here is Dean Collins with Bertha Lee gliding. Dean Collins has this impatience in his footwork. It's fast and energetic. Though the upper body stays "concentrated", almost bracing. You can see he is doing his signature turn in the solo moments.

7. Develop a body awareness

Practicing solo jazz helps you develop a body awareness and consciousness that is often not trained in Lindy hop classes. In a general Lindy Hop dance class you may focus more on connection, new moves to learn with your partner or just social dancing. In solo jazz, because of its individual nature, you really focus on yourself.

You are the only responsible for your feelings and aesthetic in your solo  dance. You feel bad at improvising?  Then start again, go through solo jazz vocabulary.  Play some games to make the process more enjoyable (check out Ksenia’s Method “practice games”) Look at yourself in the mirror and try to improve what you don’t like. A step a day, and it will get better

8. Develop your sense of confidence

Quite often in partner dance we are dependent on the other person to dance with us. Hence if we have great timing and they don’t you can try to help them, even though it can feel uncomfortable. Equally if you have bad timing and your partner is amazing, they can guide you, and so you become dependent on their timing. You then switch to another dancer, who doesn’t have such good timing and now you are both lost.

Before we go blaming the other dancer, thinking it must be their fault. To  dance well with dancers x,y,z, it is important we know our own timing is solid, balance is good and footwork is clean. Yet again solo jazz dance will show you this, in an instant! There is no one to blame, no one else to look at but yourself .

Try to increase your confidence starting from learning how to solo dance, you will see how much better you feel while dancing in a couple.

If you would like my help with some of these tips and put them into practice, visit my online dance school Secrets of Solo. You can check subscription plans here.

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

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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