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 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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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 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 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.
Closed face to face position was typical for the 20s style. The footwork mainly consisted of Charleston 20s twists.
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 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.
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 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”.
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.
The most famous Lindy Hop video is from "Hellzapoppin'" film, 1941
- The film features The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (so called "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers"):
- William Downes/Overalls & Frances "Mickey" Jones (0:39)
- Billy Ricker/Chef's Hat & Norma Miller (1:09)
- Al Minns/White Coat-Black Pants & Willa Mae Ricker (1:29)
- 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.
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.
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.
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
- Social dance: a short history. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. Chapter 7. The twentieth century: Jazz and after by Franks A.H. 1963.
- "The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality" by Baldwin, Brooke (1981). Journal of Social History. Oxford University Press.
- Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History By Edward A. Berlin
- Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake. A social and popular dance reader by Julie Malnig
- "Peabody," in The Encyclopedia of Social Dance by Albert and Josephine Butler (New York: Albert Butler Ballroom Dance Service, 1971).
- Folk Dancing by Erica Nielsen
- Ballroom Dancing Techniques - The One Step By Anon
- History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach By Gayle Kassing
- Shag: The Legendary Dance of the South by Bo Bryan
- The Original One-Step (Newman, Dances of To-Day, 1914, p. 69)
- Ragtime One Step
- Ragtime dance. The One - Step
- What is Shag Dancing
- Lindy Hop, The original swing dance
- Cakewalks & Jitterbugs: The Marriage of Jazz and Dance
- Historia del Balboa: del Pure - Bal al Bal - Swing
- Vernon and Irene Castle Biography
- The Definition of Jitterbug
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 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.
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!”
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.
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!
- 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
- Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance by Jane Desmond
- Africanisms in American Culture edited by Joseph E. Holloway
- The Jazz Cadence of American Culture edited by Robert G. O'Meally
- Juba to jive: the dictionary of African-American slang by Clarence Major
- THE SPIRIT MOVES: A History of Black Social Dance on Film Screener by Mura Dehn in 3 parts:
- Part 1 Jazz dance from turn of the century 'til 1950 (44 min.)
- Part 2 Savoy Ballroom of Harlem, 1950's (34 min.)
- Part 3 pt. 2: Postwar era, 1950-1975 (40 min.)
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Researched by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Edited by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Discover how to improve your solo jazz dance with 3 essential habits. Learn how to improve and help you refine your solo jazz movement and style.
1. Film yourself, film yourself, film yourself
The great Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in their latter years would spend large parts of a studio budget on months of pre-production and filming of dance rehearsals. They knew that only through watching themselves back on camera could they see how their movements and dance actually looked. At times Fred Astaire would insist on having three cameras filming him from three different angles while dancing. That allowed him to see what the best angle for the movements and the best viewpoint for the dance was. Both of them had the experience of watching themselves back on tape and in so many movies. They could learn more about themselves and perfect their dance: style, lines, and angles.
Fast forward to 2020 and we can all do this, practically for free, yet take it for granted. So here’s my first advice:
Go buy a simple tripod or gorilla clamp for your phone and record your practice sessions
Why is it important to film your solo jazz practice?
Be your own coach
It is wonderful to have a private Solo jazz dance class, to be tête-à-tête with the teacher in a dance room. You can always rely on that he/she will make notes on what is working and what not and will help to make adjustments. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Some of us are lucky enough to practice alone in a dance studio with mirrors, though some only have space in the living room with no mirrors. Even with a mirror, you don’t see a true representation of the movements you are actually making (not the ones you think you are making).
It’s very hard to look at yourself from the distance in this scenario, to see yourself from the outside. Simply start a new practice habit, film yourself and review it later. Be your own coach. If you are learning solo jazz dance online this is especially important.
Discover your strengths and weaknesses, to improve your solo jazz dance
From my own experience, I can tell that I improved so much from being my own dance mentor. After each practice, I have the same habit. I go for a little ritual. I take a coffee on a square next to my home and watch the videos of my practice. Even though I was not always happy when I saw the videos, it taught me a lot. Certainly watching the playback taught me throughout the year to accept myself, to love myself and my movements more. It also helped me improve how I worked with my face and arms. I used to have this black depressive look on my face while I concentrated so hard. I went through the acceptance phase and together with it started to learn more about what makes my dance mine, what are my strengths, how I can improve and control every part of my body from my face, to my fingers, to my toes and arms.
Filming yourself while dancing is the fastest step to seeing where your weaknesses and strengths are.
Additionally, reviewing practice videos taught me to improve a lot of elements in my solo jazz dance and in my swing dancing And Lindy hop. For instance, for a long time, I was unhappy with the work of my arms and palms. They were dead, not expressive and most of the time in a fist position. Noting that on the video and wanting to change helped me develop different ways of practicing and focusing on just that element of my Solo Jazz dance.
Here is an example of one of my personal practice sessions. Here I work on another element that I always wanted to improve - rhythm dancing. I created a task for myself to use swinging 8th note as much as I can.
Take the first step towards your own style in solo jazz dance
As much as making a video of my dance practice helped me to see the potential for improvement, it can also help us find our “diamond”. That thing that is so unique to only you, that makes you different and makes you you, - your strength. It is precious to recognise your strengths.
We are all very good at going to a dance event and judging others. We have an incredible ability no matter what level of the dancer we are to see the faults in others and recognise them: “oh he’s very stiff”, “she keeps repeating the same moves”, “he is off time”, etc. Equally, we can see the good things: “wow, his footwork is so precise”, “her arms are like wings” or “he just delivers the dance so well!”. This means we inherently understand for ourselves what we like and don’t like in dance. It’s easy, so let's make a practice habit of it when we work on our solo jazz and let’s use it to our advantage.
Film yourself, watch the recaps and give yourself an honest review of your dance movement and how you would like to see it improve.
Simply doing this does not mean it will improve, but you will know what you need to work on. Ask yourself, what is the ideal image of yourself on the dance floor or stage? What are the key things in your solo jazz dancing you need to improve and what habits do you need to develop them? Next, practice to work on the element you chose to improve again. By making it a practice habit, you can go deeper into this process and advance. This will open a path of refining your style.
If you really want to add focus, and intensity to this system, plan on releasing your practice video online. When we are learning solo jazz dance online, and taking online solo jazz dance classes we feel alone and safe. This is great, but sometimes a bit of judgement can be good, to help you focus. Nothing will make you focus, and try to refine and improve your dancing more than this. Anyone that follows my Instagram page @secretsofsolo will see how many practice videos I release. What people don’t know is, that for every video I release, there are 20 others that I don’t release.
In some small way, these are mini-performances, and knowing that I will release the video puts me in that mindset. Which is the exact mindset you need, to push you to improve your dancing, and ask the hard questions.
2. Set goals and time limits before practice
Online solo jazz dance classes are great, and I really believe Secrets of Solo is an amazing way to learn solo jazz dance. But it has one downside. Although I have done everything to create a system to work through, I can’t tell you when to start each day, or how to frame a practice session.
What is so great about a live class is you arrive, you warm-up, work on something, and most importantly it ends. Usually, the class ends with a recap and the teacher saying “great job, see you next week”. You don’t get this in online learning, and although subtle, this difference is essential. Here is how my online learning used to go. I’d open a video, try a few moves, realize it was difficult and maybe give up. How sad is that! I'd love to emphasise on how important it is to leave each practice session with a sense of growth, a sense of development no matter how small. As Tony Robbins says “The fastest way to happiness is growth”
The fastest way to happiness is growth
Prepare for the next practice
No one will give you that “great job” with online learning, and online dance classes, so you have to do it yourself. So here's a little advice on habits. Before you practice, even the day before, open up some videos, find a move, or choreography, or frame you like, and set an intention. “Tomorrow I will spend 30 minutes learning this one thing” or “Tomorrow I will learn that thing” (with no time limit, instead of goal setting). At the end of your set time, no matter how the practice went, say “Well done, you came and practiced” to yourself, and feel good about it. And that’s the key, you will leave the dance session feeling like you did something. There is nothing else you need to do.
To become a better dancer you just need to show up and practice, consistently, no matter how short the session
It is not important what level of dancer you are and even if you practice only 10 minutes a day - you will improve. You will be better than yourself who didn't do that. Will it be as much as someone who practices for two hours a day? Probably not. But better than your former self, 100%, and, to emphasise, it gives a sense of growth, a sense of the development, happiness and a desire to do it again. You will be the dancer you want to be, in just small daily steps.
A wise man doesn’t compare his development in comparison to others but in comparison to the person, he was yesterday.
3. Write down everything you do while practicing solo jazz
We have a great tracking system on Ksenia's Secrets of Solo. It shows what you’ve already learned and gone through and gives a sense of progress. We get our little gold tick after each lesson. For those that don’t know, you get a certificate when you complete a full course. But maybe 8 weeks down the road you won’t remember how a practice session actually went.
Start taking a journal or make it a habit to keep notes about your dancing on your computer.
Take 2 or 3 minutes after each dance practice session for a quick “resume”. What did I practice? What did I learn? Why didn’t it work? Was I distracted, if so why? How can I remove distractions and focus? Did I have a clear intention before the practice? Did I have a goal and did I accomplish it? What’s my goal for tomorrow's dance training?
Tracking your progress
This simple method of tracking and monitoring practice will keep you informed, motivated, and goal orientated. You will be able to look back at any time over the year, and realize “Yes, I did a lot of work, I have improved, good job”. It is exactly this motivation we need to show up the next day, and the next day again. Who wants to go back to the thing that makes them feel bad and lower their self-esteem every day? Though we do have to understand why something made us feel bad during the practice, in order to work on it, we still need to leave each practice session feeling good.
How to improve your solo jazz dance, just do this:
Set fixed-length sessions, with goals, film them and write it down after.
A great habit to improve your solo jazz dance. This way you can become your own coach. You’ll see what you have worked on and you’ll see where you are putting your time. Comes a time when you feel low and like you are not improving, you can go back 3 or 6 months and watch that old training video. When you compare it to today’s one you will see the changes. After all you’ll get that sense of accomplishment that is missing from online dance teaching. It will indeed motivate you to practice, which is the only thing you need to do.
Just small regular, consistent, focused dance practice sessions, with recorded feedback
Finally, if you are a premium member to Ksenia's Secrets of Solo, send me one of those practice sessions and ask me for advice. Personal feedback will help you more than anything to improve your solo jazz dance. What do I think are the key things you should work on? We are all terrified to film ourselves but know that no one is judging you. We are all on the same road, just different parts of it. So someone further down the road will only see themselves five or ten years ago. Doesn't matter if you are a touring solo performer next year, or can now simply bounce in time, as long as it’s an improvement for you.
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Everything we do in solo jazz dances is an improvisation, unless it’s a performance or choreography. We are going to look closer now on how to actually practice it. There is an ocean of things to practice in solo jazz dance styles. Again, limit yourself. Don’t practice everything. Everything means you won't really improve significantly in any element of your dancing. You will most likely just repeat what is already habitual and in your muscle memory. This of course is still great to do, and fun, but not practice in the true sense.
Limit yourself to:
- a musical phrase (a phrase of 2 bars, 4 bars or 8 bars…watch the “Pillow” section in “Secrets of Improvisation course”)
- a particular step
- a style (say if you want to work on ragtime or bebop). Within that limit yourself again to footwork, rhythms, or phrase lengths
- a part of the body (say, arms, isolations etc.)
- a type of step (say slides or turns or floor footwork, areal steps, tricks, breaks etc.
My whole course “Secrets of Improvisation” deals with just that. How to limit yourself and how to develop each limitation. Here are a few examples of limiting yourself.
Example 1. Limit your solo jazz dance improvisation to a particular step
You want to practice being creative in the basic footwork you already know. For instance limit yourself to a basic Charleston step only. In this case I would like to think of the Charleston basic not as a step, but more as concept. When you think of that as a concept it is more open to be modified. I created a 4 volume course that is fully based on this idea of limiting yourself to only one solo jazz dance step, it's called "Variation Lab".
Remember, that within each step we can work with:
- Form (Visuals. How this step looks: maybe you add crosses, you turn this step somewhere, you make any segment a split, etc. )
- Time (meaning musicality, rhythms)
Then you go ahead and dance Charleston basic step playing let’s say with rhythm only, searching for what is called variations of the step. While doing it don’t worry about other elements. You are practicing, you are focusing on a particular task, this is how you will improve.
Remember that when we talk about time, we can look at the cake of subdivisions: from the whole note to its smallest divisions. You can use all of this range to “rhythmise" your step. I like to think about it like that: every step has it’s 0 or default rhythm. For instance, with Charleston basic step you hit on every beat, every quarter note 4/4 and it lasts for 2 bars (or one 8 in dancers terms). From every 0 or default timing you can play with the time to - “minus” (less steps, more space) or + “plus” (More footwork, less space)
(Minus) “ - “ means we decrease from quarter notes, and create pauses with half and whole notes.
(Plus) “ + “ means we increase the amount of footwork inside basic step to triplet of a half, 8th note, triplet of a quartet.
With this idea of minus and plus we do not change the length of the step, we change the time within the step. Charleston basic will remain to be an 8 count step, but what we do inside it with the time and with the footwork will change.
Here is an explanation of the Subdivision Cake:
6/4 triplet of a half (6)
Triplet of a quarter (12)
I am going to demonstrate that to the metronome. You can go ahead and practice with me.
Try to play with this step to it’s limits, until you don’t know how to variate it anymore. Find your variations, repeat it, get comfortable, try it to different tempos. Make it yours!
Then put on a favourite tune, start improvising (just dance whatever you want, no limits) and at some points insert this new variation of yours into your improvisation. Next practice don’t forget to use this variation again.
Et voila! Your unique new creation is in your pocket, in your system.
Here is a demo of "Time Plus" improvisation within Charleston basic step from my course Secrets of Improvisation. I came up with those variations playing with subdivisions, spotlighting more notes, adding more footwork.
Example 2. Limit your solo dance improvisation to a jazz form
Practice feeling AABA
This is something bigger than an 8 count step. Let’s talk about standard jazz form: AABA or the »American Popular Song Form. Most jazz standards or songs we commonly know are 32 bars long. As swing dancers we think most of the time in 8s, than a full form would 16 8s. Which steps do we know that are 8 counts? Charleston basic, swing out, break. In this case AABA in total is 16 swing outs or 16 Charleston steps.
Pretty much all the A’s in a standard swing tune have the same melody, with small variations at the repeat of each section (Musicians often say A1, A2, B, and Final A) Take a look at super common standard tunes like: Sweet Sue, I’ve found a New Bay, Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird, Jumping at the Woodside, Esquire Bounce and so many others. Just take a quick listen to "Honeysuckle Rose" by Ben Webster Quartet. Released: 1944.
- A (of 4 8s)
- next A that is pretty much the same (of 4 8s)
- then we come to a bridge, B part (of 4 8s). Bridge is different, contrasting. You can hear it. It’s a sort of a break from the main A theme. A release. A dive into something different.
- wrap it up with A (of 4 8s)
And in total 32 bar unit, or AABA!
Dramaturgy of AABA jazz music form
AABA has a certain dramaturgy: tell a story, support, suspense/ tension/lead up, finale. Each part, each A and B has a dramaturgy as well within the four 8s. I like to think of it like that:
- first 8 - set a tone
- second 8 - repeat the tone (maybe with a little twist)
- third 8 - suspense, tension, lead up to …
- fourth 8 - release, grand finale! break
After the theme AABA, musician take turns to play solos. When we say play solos over the form, we know that the form is 32 bars and it means they play a solo over AABA.
How can we practice it and how it helps improvisation?
To feel AABA is to know where you are in the music, where are your breaks, high and low points. To feel it means to know pretty much from the first note how to frame, place and ornament your improvisation.
I always use the idea of dramaturgy within AABA and within 4 8s. I know I will be on the wave with the music if I do:
- Charleston basic (set a tone)
- Charleston basic with variation (repeat with the modulation)
- cross over (suspense)
- break (grand finale)
Here is your practice if AABA is a new info to you:
Listen to different tunes (you can use the examples i gave above) and count out loud bars or 8s.
Sing the phrases together with the melody. You will see a phrase is also one 8 count.
- Dance 3 8s of some step (can be basics step, box step or any other) and SCAT the 4th 8 which is a break. Do that several times with different tunes.
- Dance 3 8s of some step, than SCAT and DANCE exactly what you scatted for the 4th 8
- Dance first 8 some step, second 8 variation of that step, third 8 think of a different “suspense” step, scat & dance the break for fourth 8.
Use this formula for the whole tune to practice your AABA feel. Sometimes you will here that some tunes have “injected” 2 or 4 bars bridges/ pedals in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes common an extended “tag” at the end of the form, which may or may not be repeated at the musicians discretion “I got rhythm” being an example. Don’t be scared, move on. Just recognise them.
If you are familiar with AABA jazz form, use only exercises 3, 4 and 5. Go ahead and try other forms.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you are interested in more detailed examples with demonstrations, I explain all of this in my 3h online course “Secrets of Improvisation”. There I talk about:
- how to start improvisation or back to basics
- cake of subdivisions
- use of all the subdivisions in the jazz footwork
- explain how to limit yourself to a step (with the example of Charleston basic step, Fall of the Lod, cross over/ behind)
- how to phrase your improvisation
- give few exercises to use in practice and on the dance floor (ex. Pillow)
- arrange practice with a live musician
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya