Apprendere la storia della danza jazz, del Lindy hop e delle discipline ad esso correlate, è fondamentale per poter riconoscere, accettare e rispettare la tradizione. Sapere da dove provengono il tap, il solo jazz, lo shag …, quali sono le loro origini e come si sono modificati nel tempo, è nostra responsabilità come ballerini e amanti della cultura jazz.

Quando parliamo di “danza jazz”, dobbiamo tenere presente il contesto storico culturale, dobbiamo parlare di ballerini di colore e dunque dell’influenza africana che gioca un ruolo essenziale nello sviluppo di questa è inammissibile parlare del bagaglio culturale Americano, che si tratti di musica o di danza jazz senza riconoscere le origini Africane che entrambe possiedono.

È inammissibile parlare del bagaglio culturale americano, che si tratti di musica o di danza jazz senza riconoscere le origini africane che entrambe possiedono.

Nascita della danza Jazz

La parola Jazz è talmente ampia e plurivalente che una semplice definizione non sarebbe sufficiente a descriverla. Quando apriamo la parentesi del Jazz, ci addentriamo in un campo complesso seppur affascinante!

Le origini del Jazz sono Africane, piu precisamente, dell’Africa occidentale

jazz danza nera Afro-Americana
La ballerina africana Issa Niang si esibisce con la compagnia itinerante Ballets Africans. New York, NY, USA. Scattata nel  febbraio 1959 Fotografo Ralph Morse. LIFE.com

 

Agli albori del 17esimo comincia la storia della schiavitù che ha visto protagonista un enorme numero di persone dell’Africa occidentale, caricati su barche e portati nel continente americano, dove avrebbero lavorato per i proprietari di  piantagioni e coltivazioni.

Durante il periodo della schiavitù la danza tradizionale africana, con il suo simbolismo,il suo legame con la spiritualità e l'unicità dell’individuo pongono le basi per la nascita della cultura vernacolare Afro-Americana.  Ecco perché è importante riconoscere la connessione tra le danza tradizionali africane (più precisamente dell'Africa occidentale) e la storia della danza jazz.

Ê nelle piantagioni del Nord e sud America che si è fatta la storia della danza jazz vernacolare! Balli come “Buzzard lope”, “Turkey trot”, ricchi di riferimenti al mondo animale ne sono un chiaro esempio.

I proprietari delle piantagioni, osservando queste danze, ne sono accattivati : l’energia, la vitalità, il dinamismo! Gli schiavi, d’altro canto, guardano ai balli da sala dei loro padroni con scherno e derisione: li scimmiottano, imitandoli in quello che sarà noto come il “Cakewalk”.

Così facendo adottano la verticalità della postura, l’idea della posizione chiusa del ballo di coppia e ponendo un primo fondamento per la nascita dei balli a noi noti come il Charleston, il Lindy hop, ed altre discipline swing.

La danza jazz si sviluppa in terribili circostanze, in condizioni di restrizioni, proibizioni e limitazioni in termini di espressione culturale attraverso la danza e la musica.

Tuttavia è lo stesso, per quanto orribile contesto, ad offrire il terreno fertile (che fu l’America) per l’incontro tra molteplici culture e tradizioni : da un lato quella Africana, dall’altra quella Americana ed Europea.

Per poter capire quali sono gli aspetti di influenza africana nella storia della danza jazz, dobbiamo ricercare e studiare quelli che sono i suoi elementi essenziali e i suoi fondamenti.

Caratteristiche della danza africana nera

Le sei caratteristiche della danza vernacolare Afro-Americana sono il ritmo, l’improvvisazione, controllo, angolarità, asimmetria e dinamismo

-“Steppin’ on the Blues”, p. 32

Kjatherine Dunham, a researcher that made a huge investment in black american culture and jazz dance steps
Bust A Move !! | Serie 1943 2/2 Foto di Black History Album su flickr. La ballerina Katherine Dunham mentre balla sulla costa orientale della Florida con il ballerino Ohardieno durante lo spettacolo "Tropical Revue", New York, 1943. Foto di Gjon Mili. Archivi fotografici di Life, © Time Inc., per gentile concessione di LIFE.com

Lo stile Afro americano trova la sua migliore espressione e manifestazione, proprio nella danza! Andiamo ad osservare tali caratteristiche più da vicino

Ritmo

Il ritmo è l’architettura dell’essere, la dinamica più interna che dá forma all’essere, la espressione più pura della forza vitale

-Thompson “African art in motion”, p.13 – 14

La danza Afro americana si basa sul ritmo! E una danza orientata alla pulsazione della musica ; per questo motivo ballare sul beat è fondamentale. Per quanto tu sia capace di mostrare le tue migliori movenze, se balli fuori dal beat, è come se non stessi sentendo realmente la musica, come se non la stessi vivendo da dentro.

L’idea è di fluire con la musica, salire sul “treno” del beat, e quando lo senti realmente, allora è il momento di adornarlo con i tuoi passi !
Essere in grado di aggiungere qualcosa di nuovo alla musica, è il cuore pulsante della danza jazz.

Controllo

I bravi ballerini che praticano questo sile, non permettono che i loro corpo si abbandoni ad un movimento incontrollato. Quando sopraggiunge il break musicale, non si tratta di "lasciarsi andare", ma piuttosto di applicare una vera e propria tecnologia che prevede una stilizzazione del movimento. La perdita del controllo e di una apparenza fresca e rilassata li porrebbe fuori dalla tradizione della danza vernacolare jazz

-Steppin' on the blues, pg 34

La danza jazz e vernacolare sono piuttosto espressive e possono sembrare a prima vista “”frenetiche” e prive di controllo corporale, specialmente se poste a confronto con gli stili ”di danza europei (si pensi per esempio alla rigidezza della danza classica)

Quando si balla si può  finire fuori dalla musica, si può perdere il ritmo, l'energia, la forma... ma attenzione a non lasciarci “schiacciare” dal ballo stesso!
Qui interviene un importante ed affascinante concetto che è l'estetica del “bello”. Mantenendo un'espressione rilassata ed un atteggiamento fresco e tranquillo, riusciamo a comunicare un’idea di leggerezza, controllo e dominio de nostri movimenti, i quali appariranno facili e senza sforzo!

Asimmetria

Nel libro African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry, p.107, l’asimmetria è considerata non soltanto in riferimento al movimento del corpo, ma come relazione fra la danza ed il ballerino stesso. Per quanto i ballerini possano eseguire una serie furiosa di passi, mosse e figure, non arrivano mai a perdere l'asimmetrica giustapposizione tra calma, equilibrio e controllo.

Angolarità

Spiegato brevemente,è come se ogni posizione del corpo disegnasse un nuovo angolo. Concetto questo piuttosto difficile da comprendere ed applicare per coloro che hanno una formazione in discipline di danza europee, dove le transizioni tra i movimenti sono più fluide e le differenze tra una posa e l'altra quasi impercettibili.
Nelle danze tradizionali dell’Africa occidentale ed altre derivate, le transizioni al contrario sono più drammatiche, quasi geometriche

Per poter integrare questo concetto di “angolarità” nelle discipline di danza jazz e in particolare, nel solo jazz, si può pensare ad un approccio di tipo “controllo-tensione-relax.

Ad una prospettiva più ampia, si ritrova il concetto di angolarità in tutta la cultura Africana: la comunicazione non verbale della cultura e tradizione nera è ricca di “angoli”.
A tal proposito cito Rex Stewart, un cornettista jazz americano, il quale parlando Louis Armstrong in “Jazz masters of 30s” descrive il suo stile con una “ camminata a grandi passi, e il capo leggermente piegato in un angolo come a dire: Ehi attento! non mi fare arrabbiare! (The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, p. 233)

Vediamo dunque che l’importanza del ritmo, le sue forme asimmetriche e l’angolarita del solo jazz, sono di influenza prettamente Africana

Improvvisazione

Personalmente, ciò che mi ha condotto al solo jazz e al Charleston è proprio questa caratteristica: l’improvvisazione. Quando ero più giovane ricordo aver detto a me stessa: Ksenia questo è quello che vuoi fare, questa è pura liberazione!
Effettivamente, le danze nere, rispetto alla loro controparte europea offrono una libertà di espressione molto più vasta!

Come definire l’improvvisazione? Improvvisazione è creazione sul momento! e`un po’ come giocare, sperimentare con le idee. Mentre il ballerino improvvisa ci si aspetta che giochi ad estendere la tradizione al limite di qualcosa di nuovo che egli stesso apporta nel suo processo creativo.

Per me, che ho un background nel mondo dei balli da sala, l’impossibilità di scegliere ciò che realmente sentivo di esprimere nel momento, era fonte di grande frustrazione.
Ricordo il mio maestro riprendermi perché non eseguivo correttamente il passo previsto dalla coreografia…

L’idea di poter decidere liberamente, giocare con la pulsazione della musica ed esprimere ciò che la musica detta, per me è pure Gioia! Il jazz e le danze nere in generale sono realmente un processo di creazione continua ed invenzione.

L’improvvisazione si compone di gioco, curiosità, audacia; porta ad una profonda connessione che si innesca tra se stessi, il proprio corpo e la musica, e quando percepisci di averlo fatto correttamente, la soddisfazione ed il senso di pienezza sono immediati!

L’estetica Afroamericana incoraggia la capacitá individuale di sperimentare, esplorare, provare nel processo della composizione e creazione. Non solo si ammira l’originalitá del ballerino, ma la si aspetta! L’artista deve poi essere capace di trovare l’equilibrio tra ciò che reputa egli stesso come bello e valido e ciò che invece lo spettatore considera tale! Tutto sta nell’aggiungere qualcosa alla tradizione senza perdere la connessione con essa

-Steppin’ on the blues, pg 35

danza nera jazz competizione di Lindy Hop al Savoy Ballroom
Lee Moates e Tonita Malau mostrano il loro stile di danza vincente durante una competizione di Lindy Hop al Savoy Ballroom il 24 aprile 1953. Hans Von Nolde / AP

In questo tipo di danza, ciò che realmente si apprezza è la capacità di espressione individuale: ci si aspetta di vedere emergere la personalità del singolo ballerino piuttosto che la “copia” di un qualsiasi altro performer. Anche quando a ballare e`un gruppo di ballerini, e`sempre l'individuo che spicca per la sua essenza. In questo modo si favorisce la diversità nell'unità.

Elementi fondamentali del Solo Jazz

Come abbiamo detto, le origini del jazz sono radicate nelle danze tradizionali dell’Africa occidentale. Molti elementi tra i quali la tecnica di base di tale disciplina sono praticamente opposti alla tradizione europea.
Andiamo dunque ad esaminare i fondamenti dal solo jazz e delle danze swing in generale: quali la postura del corpo, il feeling del “bounce” o “pulse”, il “contro tempo” il concetto di “swinging 8th note” e il ritmo sincopato.

La postura

Prima di tutto definiamo ed identifichiamo il centro a partira dal quale il movimento si origina. Nelle danze europee quali i balli da sala, il ballet, ed altre danze folkloriche, il punto focale e`il petto. Quando si ballano i suddetti stili, si avverte una tendenza a crescere verso l’alto, adottando una postura pressoché verticale , dovuta alla colonna eretta e agli arti rigidi. Si ricercano linee, geometrie simmetriche e la bellezza nella forma, mentre la traiettoria principale che il movimento disegna è verso l’alto.

Al contrario nelle danze di derivazione ed influenza africana si lavora e gioca con l’effetto della gravità, per cui l’intenzione, nonché gli accenti del movimento, sono diretti verso il basso! Ovviamente, questo si ripercuote sulla postura del corpo.

dance with bended knees, lest you be taken for a corpse”, ovvero, balla con le ginocchia piegate, altrimenti verrai scambiato per un morto!

-proverbio del Congo

Nella tradizioni di molte danze africane e in particolare dell’africa occidentale, avere le articolazioni piegate è segno di vitalità ed energia, mentre i fianchi, gomiti e gambe tese, rappresentano rigidezza e dunque, morte.

le ginocchia piegate, le forme angoleggianti dei corpi(di ballerini neri), erano in netto contrasto con la colonna eretta, le gambe tese, i piedi girati all’infuori e le braccia arrotondate degli insegnanti di danza europei

-“Steppin’ on the blues”, pg 49

Bounce

Elemento fondamentale e caratterizzante del solo jazz e swing è il feeling del “bounce” o pulse. Le diverse discipline di danza possono avere passi in comune, ma ciò che le contraddistingue è il tipo di groove con il quale vengono eseguiti.

Il bounce rappresenta il tempo della musica, e` la pulsazione 4/4.

Immagina di avere un contrabbasso dentro di te; quando mantieni il feeling del bounce, andare fuori tempo è impossibile, praticamente è il tuo metronomo!

Il solo jazz si caratterizza per movimenti rilassati, un corpo soggetto alla gravità, una colonna dinamica e ritmo! Praticamente il feeling del bounce è già esso stesso una danza!

Mentre ti trovi a praticare il bounce, tieni a mente queste idee di derivazione Africana.
Si tratta di una serie di considerazioni raccolte dall'autore Thompson, intervistando vari esperti nel settore culturale dell’Africa occidentale e centrale,
estratti dal libro Steppin’ on the blues,

  1. Non allineare i tuoi arti in maniera troppo rigida (Kongo)
  2. Balla piegato verso il basso (Congo)
  3. Mantieni i gomiti vicino ai fianchi. Devi muovere tutto il corpo, vibrare nell’interezza dei tuoi movimenti, ma al tempo stesso contienili; non lasciare che l’impulso di gesti,braccia e gambe disperdano la tua energia e ti allontanino dal centro del tuo movimento. (Congo)

Il Backbeat ovvero il“contro tempo” nella storia della musica jazz.

Il termine Backbeat si utilizza per descrivere un forte accento sul beat 2 e 4 in un tipico tempo musicale di 4/4.

Mentre nella tradizione musicale europea, i beats generalmente accentuati sono l’1 ed il 3, il jazz, le cui origini sono radicate nella musica tradizionale afro-americana delle comunità nere di New Orleans e  stati Uniti, pone l’ accento forte su quello che e considerato il beat “debole”, o per l’appunto Backbeat.

Dice il gran compositore Afroamericano Duke Ellington nella descrizione del jazz. "Non scrocchiamo le dita sul beat e`troppo aggressivo. In jazz we don’t push, we let it fall.”

Cosa caratterizza un tipico pezzo swing? Il bassista potrà pizzicare le corde del beat forte, 1 e 3, oppure potrà suonare i 4 beat dell’intera battuta, eseguendo quella che si chiama un “Walk line; in questo caso diremo che il basso effettua il “walking”.

Ill batterista doppia il tempo percuotendo la grancassa (kick drum), eseguendo esattamente le stesse note sui beat 1 e 3 o la “walkin line”, e swingando sul piatto ride (ride cymbal), mentre l’ “high hat” (un’altra componente della batteria) si mantiene costantemente sui beat 2 e 4. Questa è la base musicale dello swing.

Il ritmo sincopato ed il concetto di “swinging 8th note ” nella musica jazz

Stando alla descrizione dello scrittore Albert Murray, il ballerino jazz e` come uno strumento percussivo in constante conversazione con i musicisti.
E`interessante notare come nella musica jazz, anche la  parte melodica si compone in realtà di una forte valenza ritmica, praticamente anche le melodie vengono eseguite in maniera percussiva. Possiamo assolutamente dire che “it’s all about the rhythm”, ed il perché va ricercato nelle sue origini Africane.
Quando parliamo di ritmo nella musica swing, dobbiamo fare riferimento alle note swingate ed al ritmo di tipo sincopato

Il ritmo sincopato si crea swingando l’ottava nota. Si tratta di un pattern ritmico che devi conoscere per poter ballare i passi della danza jazz vernacolare. Porta in sé un feeling che ricorda una caduta, come un singhiozzo; incoraggio il senso di lasciare cadere, di “release” all’interno di un movimento o mediante il movimento stesso.

Tantissimi passi rappresentano il ritmo sincopato: il nostro noto triple steps, lo stomp off, il ball change (kick ball change, hold ball change, slide ball change). Il ritmo non cambia, ma può assumere diverse forme.

Un ballerino di jazz si contraddistingue per la sua capacità di far uso del ritmo sincopato durante le sua improvvisazioni.

Un ballerino di jazz si contraddistingue per la sua capacità di far uso del ritmo sicnopato durante le sua improvvisazioni.

Che significa insomma “swingare l’ottava nota”? Significa che sei libero di creare il ritmo sincopato swingando la nota che vuoi. Puoi far cadere la sincope su qualsiasi beat della battuta.

Il ritmo sincopato è una caratteristica veramente apprezzata in qualsiasi ballerino, musicista o performer di jazz. Chi realmente possiede “swing”, merita tutto l’apprezzamento, rispetto ed amore!

Per ciò vi incoraggio ad imparare le basi della musica swing e del ritmo sincopato, cosi sara piu semplice sviluppare una maniera di ballare fluida, elegante, controllata e in stretta connessione con le radici Afro Americane che tale cultura racchiude in sé

P.S.

Questa è solo un breve racconto della storia del jazz; c’è un mondo da scoprire. Vi invito a continuare ed approfondire le vostre conoscenze, arricchendo la mente mentre vi allenate con corpo! Così da poter mantenere la connessione  con il passato mentre continuiamo a ballare la danza jazz al giorno d’oggi.

Tutto cio e`fondamentale soprattutto se state imparando il solo jazz nel formato virtuale e quindi lontani dal contesto di una comunità jazz che potrebbe aiutarvi nel processo di apprendimento. Perciò, se questo è il vostro caso, vi incoraggio ancor di più a svolgere ricerche e non smettere di imparare!

Fonti

  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

 

Scritto da Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Tradotto da Martina Maddalena

The history of social dancing in the United States is very rich. Most of us heard of Lindy Hop or swing dancing. Though there were many amazing dance forms in combination with Jazz music, that dominated the cultural landscape in America in the first half of the 20th century.

In this blog I will make a quick overview of the popular social partner dances during the first half of the 20th century such as Cakewalk, Two Step, One Step, Fox Trot, Charleston, Shag, St. Louis Shag, Balboa and Lindy hop (Jitterbug).

Ragtime dances

Ragtime was a highly rhythmic dance music that became an international phenomenon in late 19th century.  This music was always associated with dancing. As the music moved to ballrooms, the ragtime sheet music always had a. mark of an "appropriate" dance. The dances named on the earliest ragtime sheet music are the cakewalk, march, and two-step. Interestingly, at time all of those dances or a combination was written on a sheet. It tells us that there was lack of musical distinction between the dances.

Cakewalk

The Cakewalk, also known as the “Chalk line walk” or “walk around” was  a pre-Civil war dance developed from the original “prize walks”. Prize walks were held in the plantations of the Southern United States in the mid 19th century.

Prize walks were sort of carnival events. The slaves of southern plantations used to gather at their master’s house to enter a contest and perform a dance. In fact the dance’s name comes from the decorated cake that would be awarded to the winning couple.

Us slaves watched white folks' parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we'd do it too, but we used to mock 'em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn't dance any better.
- Baldwin 1981

Basically the dance was about mocking the aristocratic mannerism of white people. Initially it was performed by men and Black dancers only.  Later the shows saw the introduction of both women and Whites, usually performing in Black face.

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

By the mid 19 century, cakewalk began to enter the minstrel show acts. Slowly it became a part of American culture and entertainment. Though the dance was the first one to dissapear from the ragtime sheet music in around 1904.

 

The Two- Step

American Two-Step craze began around 1890. Before that it was the European dances that dominated American ballrooms. The Two-Step was a simple dance in 2/4 or 4/4 time that brought on  marching chassés steps.

The Two Step flourished because it was perfectly suitable for dancing to marching tunes of John Philip Sousa. “The Washington Post” tune by Sousa fit the Two Step so much that the dance was at times called The Washington Post.

One of the most popular Two Step dances was The Circle Two Step (also called “The Paul Jones”), a mixer where the dancers began in a large circle, broke away with a partner for The Two - Step, reformed the circle and found a new partner, broke away for The Two - Step, and so on.
- Erica Nielsen, p. 38

Few decades later the new style The One - Step (and the Foxtrot) replaced The Two - Step dance.

The One-Step

The One - Step (a.k.a: the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear) came from England in 1911. At that time it consisted of a mere march forward, backward and a right turn, danced with military precision. When it was brought to America, it was adapted to the syncopated rhythms of Ragtime music by adding a run or “trot” (like a little galop, in a horse riding style).

The One Step, that became popular after the animal dances, however, eliminated all hoppings, all contortions of the body, all flouncing of the elbows, all twisting of the arms, and above all else, all fantastic dips
- Erica Nielsen, p. 17

It was like this until the ballroom couple Irene and Vernon Castle developed what was seen by the white community as a more dignified version of it. It took the name of the Castle walk.

However around 1917  One Step gradually fell out of fashion and disappeared from the ragtime music sheets.

 

Foxtrot

 

The Foxtrot (also Fox Trot, The Fox-trot, Fishwalk or Horse Trot), is an animal dance, that later became a ballroom dance craze. As Nielsen and Kassing state, foxtrot might have originated from the 1913 (1914) vaudeville act by Arthur Carringford, whose stage name was Henry Fox. His two slow walks followed by 4 quick steps became known as “Fox’s Trot”.

However some attribute the invention of the Foxtrot to the Castles. Two professional ballroom dancers, who through their frequent performing foxtrot inspired many people to come to dance studios for instructions. You can watch The Castles dancing fox trot in public here.

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

In the 20s, English professional dancers and dance teachers found a new standardised way to adapt this dance to slower tempos. So the dance split into two ones : the “slow” foxtrot (also called English foxtrot) and the “Quickstep”. The quickstep being influenced by Charleston. The slow foxtrot by the Valse Boston.

The foxtrot today remains mainly a competitive American dance, thought in academies and dance studios. Equally one can also dance foxtrot in ballrooms at social events. During its development another spin off style came to be: the Pea body.

The Peabody

The Peabody is an American ballroom dance which evolved around 1914 from a faster version of the Foxtrot. What was called the “Quickstep” in England, was the Peabody in America, named after the New York policeman William Frank Peabody.
The Peabody was basically a unique, jaunty type fast fox-trot, done to ragtime music. Danced in an unusual couple position, called the “English”. Mr Peabody, was a big man. He simply could not hold the partner directly in the front. As a result the position is shifted.

The dance covers a lot of space on the floor. Peabody is essentially a fast one-step, with long, gliding strides and a few syncopations. The leader changes sides as he travels around the floor and adds promenades and simple turns as the dance progresses.

Here you can watch Ralph Kramden dancing his version of The Peabody to hot jazz music at a costume ball.

The One Step and Peabody went on to become the (modern) Quick-step in American style ballroom.

Charleston

Charleston dance is a solo and a partner dance. Named after a Charleston city, its invention attributed to Jenkins orphan boys and has roots in geechie / gullah culture. In 1920's it became a national craze and reached international popularity. For more information on history of the dance you can read my blog, the History of Charleston dance. 

Charleston dance as solo and partnered style saw stylistic changes between the 20s and the 40s. In the 20s it was danced to ragtime and early jazz music (New Orleans jazz). And in the 30s to swing music. Hence, we can say Charleston is a ragtime dance and a swing dance.

20s style

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

30s style

The dance got a new life in 1930s in the Savoy Ballroom when it was merged with Lindy Hop. In the 30s and 40s the close embrace position opened out. Now you had "hand to hand", "side by side", "tandem" (when the follower stands in front of the leader) and break away positions.

Watch Al Minns and Leon James doing the Lindy Charleston in couple. You can see the style, footwork and couple position has changed. More importantly, the feel changed. It is swinging, has a 4/4 feel and looks more horizontal.

Swing dances

Swing dance is a group of dances that developed with the swing style of jazz music from the 1920's to the 40s. During the swing era, there were many styles of swing dancing. Some that survived beyond the era include: Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, and Charleston. Swing is a broad term. It's the name of the era, name of the rhythm, and a tern to describe group of dance styles.

Collegiate Shag or Shag

The Collegiate Shag (or "Shag") is a partner dance done primarily to uptempo swing and pre-swing jazz music.

It is believed that the origins of the dance are within the African American community of the Carolinas in the 1920s. Shag became a craze in the 30s and even the New York Times described it as a “fundamental dance step for swing”

The Collegiate Shag was extremely popular with younger dancers. Especially popular with those who prefer lots of action rather than the slow mellow style of Fox - Trot.  Interestingly, since the 1930s the word “Shag” has been used to refer to a family of Jitterbug dances.

Shag dance does not strive for elegance. It is about energy and explosion. Its bouncy hops, kicks, exaggerated hand hold and gawky style give it a fun flair.

"Flea hop"

Prior to the 30s shag was probably known under other names like “flea hop”. It is as well suggested that the dance evolved from a partnered version of the solo Vaudeville/tap step called "flea hop". It featured a movement pattern that's very similar to shag.

One curious fact, in the late 19th century, "shagger" was a nickname for 'Vaudeville performer'. Perhaps, this Vaudeville slang was what inspired Lewis Hall (who claimed to have invented the Shag step in 1938) to give his dance the name "shag".

Alber Murray Shag

One more interesting video about shag dance is where Albert Murray teaches a shag class. Actually, his style of dancing shag got it's name as Albert Murray Shag.

Today Shag is an internationally popular swing dance style. Take a look at the contemporary shag dancers at one of the biggest events in the Europe dedicated to this dance -  Barcelona Shag Festival 

St. Louis Shag

St. Louis shag is a swing dance that evolved from Collegiate Shag, Charleston and Lindy Hop, which originated in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930s.

The dance has an 8-count basic that is commonly composed of triple-step, kick, triple-step, kick. The St. Louis Shag is an extremely fast, closed position dance. The general speed for it is around 220-300 bpm.

In this video you can see Christian Frommelt and Jenny Shirar performing St. Louis Shag at Rock That Swing festival in Munich.

Balboa

Balboa swing dance style created in balboa town Newport Beach, California.Balboa is a town in Newport Beach, California. In the 1930s, dancers at the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach, California, created their own swing dance style. The club was a small building. It was simply impossible to throw wild acrobatics of the Jitterbug there. So dancers created the Balboa - a perfectly adapted dance to fast music and crowded ballrooms.

Balboa is usually separated in two forms. Pure-bal, that is danced in closed position. Bal-swing, where the dancers are separated and lot of turns are performed

It was a simple style of dance based on a close position, strong partner connection and easy footwork  based on shuffling along the floor, although covering the least space possible.

When Swing dancers added a few Balboa steps in their dance style, a combo of the two was born: the “Bal swing”. This one allows the partners to  break the close position, introducing more freedom into using  turns, spins, even aerials, while keeping  the original Balboa tradition and philosophy.

The Lindy (The Lindy Hop)

The Lindy Hop was born in the African-American communities in Harlem, New York. It was born to a sound of a new style of music being played in Harlem - swing. The musicians called this new rhythm “swinging the beat”.

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

The name Lindy Hop came from a dancer Shorty "George" Snowden. During a dance marathon the reporter asked Snowden what he was dancing. Just at that time in 1927 Charles Lindberg made a transatlantic flight and all the newspapers were screaming "Lindberg "hopped" the Atlantic". And so Snowden said: "Lindy Hop".

Snowden danced at the marathon with his partner Mattie Purnell. You can see them in this video.  Shorty was doing the break away and the send outs, those were the predecessors of the swing out move.  Swing out is the defining move of Lindy Hop.

According to Frankie Manning, the Lindy developed out of Charleston, the Collegiate and the break away.

Hellzapoppin'

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

  1. The film features The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (so called "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers"):
  2. William Downes/Overalls & Frances "Mickey" Jones (0:39)
  3. Billy Ricker/Chef's Hat & Norma Miller (1:09)
  4. Al Minns/White Coat-Black Pants & Willa Mae Ricker (1:29)
  5. Frankie Manning/Overalls & Ann Johnson (1:55)

The history of the originators of the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom. In this video you can see the Ambassador of Lindy Hop Frankie Manning social dancing.

So what is Jitterbug?

Somehow there is a confusion between the names Jitterbug and the Lindy. In fact, jitterbug is just a nickname for Lindy Hop. Some would say, it was a white name for the Lindy. the term jitterbug was in use after the 1940's.

Negative meaning

The term actually had a bad connotation. It was used to describe a drunk person shaking from "jitters", or tremors. A person who had too much “jitter sauce” (illegal moonshine). As Al Minns describes, jitterbug was a name for people who were bad dancers.

The word “jitterbug” as well appeared in Cab Calloway's popular swing number "Call of the Jitterbug" in 1935. In this song we can hear that jitterbugging is connected with its drinking aspect.

Wizard of Oz and Lindy Hop

The film Wizard of Oz played a big part in settling the names. The producers wanted a swing dance scene and preferred the name jitterbug. “Lindy Hop” seemed like a very unfamiliar word with no direct association that would not get popular appeal. Jitterbug in the movie was actually a scary insect sent to Dorothy by the Witch. Once bitten the victims shall dance till they fall in exhaustion. Here you can watch the scene from the movie.

It’s very interesting and sad how this situation played on reputation of the dance. Lindy hop was just becoming popular and known to white audiences at the time when Wizard of Oz came out. The fact jitterbug, the name of the dance, and it's association with the witch created for some social groups an association with illegal, primitive and threatening dance.

P.S.

Here is a fantastic video of Al Minns and Leon James performing jazz dances at the talk show "Playboy's Penthouse", hosted by Marshall Stearns. You can see them dancing Cakewalk, Charleston, Two Step, Collegiate, Break Away, The Lindy and The Big Apple.

 

References and bibliography

 

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 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

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