What the Heck is Jazz Dance?

What the heck is jazz dance? There are literally stacks of books written about what jazz dance is, how it came into being, and how it is executed. But in a nutshell, if you’re wondering if you should take a jazz dance class because you’re not sure even what it is, here’s what you should know:

Jazz dance started as vernacular dance in the African-American communities of the United States coinciding with the creation of jazz music. Huh? It was popular dance that went with the day’s equivalent of pop music.

Carroll Dickerson’s Jazz Band in Chicago, 1924

The dance form continued to be called jazz dance even as it started to be performed to other types of music. You probably wouldn’t refer to Broadway show tunes as jazz music, but those show stopping numbers are primarily jazz dancing. You would not call Michael Jackson’s music jazz, but his dance moves most certainly were jazz dancing. If you love the old MGM musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, that’s jazz dancing. If you grew up watching the dancers on Solid Gold or MTV in the 80s, that’s jazz dancing too.

In the movie “Flashdance,” the lead character gets attention at a ballet audition by doing a killer jazz routine.

Jazz dance has a vocabulary and technique just as ballet does. It has master innovators and teachers who honed the craft over the last century. The late greats Luigi, Gus Giordano, Frank Hatchett, and Matt Mattox among others were not only great dancers in their own right, but took it upon themselves to become teachers who really created or passed down technique. It is possible to learn a jazz dance routine without technical training. But if you wonder why you don’t look quite right doing it, or you struggle with jumping or turning movements, it’s almost definitely from the lack of technique.

Eugene Louis Faccuito, aka Luigi

A jazz dance warm-up can be long and technical. This is not like a sports-type warm-up. The jazz dance warm-up is where you learn your technique. Sure, we could just jog in place and do your old gym class type warm-up. You’d get warm, but you wouldn’t have done much to master any particular dance skill. Rather, a jazz dance warm-up entails movements that not only warm, tone, and stretch your body, but also teach your muscle memory many positions and movements that are going to come up again and again in choreography.

Gus Giordano teaching a master class

Michael Jackson was one of the best jazz dancers of the last 50 years.

With the successful stage and film revivals of “Chicago,” the jazz choreography of Bob Fosse came back into fashion.

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