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 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.
- The Buck is a very percussive, rhythmical, grooving kind of dance. Buck dancing is regarded as an early form of tap dancing. The stomping of the ball of the feet is an early example of shuffles.
- The Wing dances involve a waving of the body. Actually different parts of the body can literally flap as if they were wings.
- The Jig dance are characterised by high energy quick moves and steps. It is a solo step dance from the British Isles. A type of Buck dance and Irish dance.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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
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.
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.
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?
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 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
-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.
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.
The transformation of jazz dance into theatrical jazz dance and the important role of professional technique and choreography, created “modern jazz dance”.
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.
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).
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
If you are a beginner, to improve your turns in solo jazz, first you need to focus on the basic techniques of turns. Preparation and spotting are the 2 most important elements of turning. In this blog you will discover the essential tips for improving your turns.
If it doesn’t look easy it is that we have not tried hard enough yet
Preparation in solo jazz dance turns
Preparation is the key to stability and direction, hence balance and coordination in solo jazz dance turns. In preparation you decided on which leg you turn and which direction is your turn (front left/right or back left/right). It’s important to know where your weight is at every and any stage. The worst case scenario is when you have weight in between your legs and you have no clue where you go.
How to prepare for a turn?
Preparation depends on the type of turn and the step you are coming from into the turn. There are simple rotations, spins and rhythm turns. Start working on your turns in solo jazz dance with simple rotation. Simple rotation is essentially just going somewhere via a rotation.
- Spin is a fast turn.
- Rhythm Turn is something related to jazz dance and tap specifically. It is when you create a rhythm in your feet when rotating.
- The turns can be on one leg and on both legs.
Preparation as well depends on the direction of your turn, amplitude and speed.
Normally, all the standard turns are done with the weight on / over the balls of your feet. For variation and eccentric style we can turn on the heel, toe, or other parts of the leg and even body. As for the basic turn technique, start with focusing on weight distribution on the balls of your feet.
Why do we fall when turning and how to keep control?
We fall from the turn often because of 2 issues that are somewhat related:
- the weight is to much on the heel, hence your shoulder fall back and you fall back
- the shoulders tend to move back hence you go on your heels and you fall back
Make sure to keep your weight over the balls of your feet and turn on the ball of your feet.
Where do I start the turn from?
The wheel of the typical standard turn are your shoulders. Not your nose, not you legs or arms, but your shoulders. When we go into the turn we do not sporadically throw ourself to one side. We push from the floor with our feet and create direction with our shoulder. Try moving your right shoulder slightly to the right and see how your whole body want to turn.
There are 2 categories of turns: with disassociation of the body parts, a sort of delay or echo effect, and when we turn as a block.
- one is when you start the turn in one point of the body and then the whole body comes later into the rotation
- the other is when the whole body goes into the rotation at the same time, so the shoulder - hip -knee - toes look the same direction and rotate at the same time.
Start to practice the second type of the turn for solo jazz dance. This way you will learn the basic technique from where you then can start practicing other more advanced turns. In the beginning all we want to achieve is to get controlled and smooth turns.
Spotting when doing a turn
Spotting is another key to success for good turns in solo jazz dance. You will hear the word "spot" in a dance class on turns nearly hundred times.
Remember the two simple rules:
- My eyes and nose leave into the turn the last, but return from the turn first. The key idea is to keep an eye on something to know where are you going into the turn from and where are you arriving after the turn. The the eyes need to focus right after the rotation, before you put the leg on the ground to finish the turn.
- My neck and head leave a separate life from the body. You do not turn your head together with the body. The neck and head stays spotting and only then goes into turn.
Why do I feel dizzy when turning and how to prevent it?
Spotting will help you to stop feeling dizzy. Dizziness comes because you are not spotting, which is to say that your eyes are not focused and your vision field is blurry. If you go into the rotation and not spot (which is to say your head will turn at the same time as the body), you will feel dizzy pretty quickly.
Landing from a turn
In vernacular solo jazz dance styles it is acceptable to land with a slight soft bounce down. Make sure you do not collapse into it though, but still have control over weight distribution. In jazz dance styles like solo jazz dance, the lindy (hop), swing, 20s Charleston and so on, you do not need to push up when turning, you can keep low and parallel to the ground with bend knees.
One of the biggest inspirations in jazz dancing regarding turns is Nicholas Brothers. Their furious, energetic style of rhythm turns and spins is very inspiring for dancers of all styles.
Practice few minutes at a time and take breaks. Feeling dizzy will definitely not help. Spend time in preparation to make sure you spot and have weight distribution according to how you want to turn and you know your direction.
You can check out this video, it’s a partial recording of my class on turn technique in jazz dance:
You can study turn techniques with Secrets of Solo online dance classes. It is a very convenient way to improve the turns in solo jazz dance. You can study in your own pace in front of the mirror, filming yourself. Most importantly you do not need to be worried or feel embarrassed in a class with other people. You can take the online class as a first step to establish your basics and then feel more comfortable and confident in a live class.Solo Jazz 101 course
(perfect for any level)
Jazz Steps IV: Signature Breaks chapter
- Lesson 28: Lock Turns 9
- Tips: How not to get dizzy in a turn 2
- Lesson 31: Half Break & Lock Turn 1
- Lesson 32: Lock Turn Break
- Variation 12: Syncopated Turn 2
- Variation 13: Kick Turn
- Variation 14: Back Turn 1
Secrets of Improvisation course
(perfect for any level, especially if you are working on improvising)
- “How to step?” Rotation 2
- Chapter IV: Form & Rotation 1 (check all classes in this chapter)
- Fall of The Log. “Rotation” tool 2
This article is a developed answer to a request on Ksenia's Quora acccount,
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.
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
Nowhere is African American style manifested more than in dance. Let's look into some of those characteristics closer.
“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.
“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.
“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
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 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)
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.
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")
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.
- Syncopation is a deviation from a regular expected rhythmic pattern, often placing stress (through dynamic accents) on weaker beats. It shifts the beat before or after the beat.
- Syncopation is basically a portal to interesting and complex rhythms. It plays with our expectation when the beat should occur, loosens up the rhythm and brings surprise.
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
- Steppin’ on The Blues The Visible Rhythms of African American dance by Jacqui Malone
- Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery By Katrina Dyonne Thompson
- Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities edited by Kariamu Welsh, Esailama Diouf, Yvonne Daniel
- Tappin' at the Apollo: The African American Female Tap Dance Duo Salt and Pepper By Cheryl M. Willis
- Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins by Cholly Atkins, Jacqui Malone
- Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver
- Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance By Anthea Kraut
- African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry edited by Kariamu Welsh-Asante
- The Routledge Dance Studies Reader edited by Alexandra Carter, Jens Giersdorf, Yutian Wong