Jazz dance is shared by a large range of dance styles. Before the 1950s, jazz dance related to dance styles that originated from African American vernacular dance. Jazz dance was an integral part of jazz until the end of the swing era in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, a new genre of jazz dance — modern jazz dance — emerged, with roots in Caribbean traditional dance. Every individual style of jazz dance has roots traceable to one of these two distinct origins. Jazz was a big hit in the early 1950s and it is still a well-loved style of dance all over the world.


The term "jazz" was first applied to a style of dance during World War I. [2] Jazz in a dance form, however, originates from the vernacular dances of Africans when they were brought to the Americas on slave ships. Jazz dance first appeared in African American culture in the United States. The dance form is linked with the native music of African slaves, featuring "free conversation-like style of improvisation." Beginning with slavery, the constant mockery of different cultures, portrayed through dance, created new styles and genres that continued to evolve. After the end of Minstrelsy and vaudeville shows, dance as entertainment took two routes: jazz-as a popular social dance- and burlesque-a non-reciprocal form of dance- but both had a huge presence in the social and entertainment life within New Orleans. Jazz dance in particular developed alongside jazz music in New Orleans in the early 1900s. [3] New Orleans was an incubator of dance because of the many cultural clashes that took place in the history of the city. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, jazz dance transformed from this vernacular form into a theatre-based performance form of dance that required trained dancers. [4] During this time, choreographers from the modern and ballet dance worlds experimented with the jazz dance style. [4] These included choreographers such as George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jack Cole, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse. [4] All of these choreographers influenced jazz by requiring highly trained dancers to perform a specific set of movements, which differed greatly from the colloquial form of New Orleans in the 1900s. [3] [4] Also during this time period (circa. 1950) jazz dance was profoundly influenced by Caribbean and other Latin American dance styles introduced by anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham. [5]

Jazz dance is still a popular form of dance, and many dancers have flocked to New Orleans, Louisiana for the connection the city has with music. With the prominence of jazz music and the laid-back attitude of the city, many professional swing dancers have moved to New Orleans in an attempt to kick-start a revision of the neo-swing dance movement. [6] People can find many opportunities in New Orleans to show off their jazz dance skills or get the opportunity to learn, including programs like the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown, January Jump' n' Jive, or with schools such as Dance Quarter, which hosts both events and dance classes. [6]

Where jazz dance gained notoriety

Jazz in New Orleans developed with community life such as brass band funerals and music in park picnics or ball games. The spirit of New Orleans and jazz music connected the performer to the audience, offering a link through which all parties could participate; this allowed for the growth of dance around the city's musical style. [7] In New Orleans, big bands in the 1930s and 1940s made a living by playing in large ballrooms, amusement parks, hotels, and other venues for dancing.

Funky Butt Hall, officially Kinney's Hall or McKenna's Hall, but known to ragtime musicians and dancers as Funky Butt Hall, [8] was a church/dance hall that housed many weekend night dances to the population of New Orleans. It was popular because of the repeated attendance of Buddy Bolden and his band, one of the biggest musicians to have an influence on the development of Jazz music, and directly dance. Bolden popularized the ragtime song " Funky Butt ", which gave the hall its common name.

Economy Hall: A dance hall located in Treme, near Storyville, dances were held because of the numerous social aid and pleasure clubs that had events in the hall. These organizations provided a variety of services, including brass band funerals and dances, to New Orleans community. [7]

Jazz dance in media

The first appearance of jazz dance in media was with the representation of the basic jazz vernacular dance the Lindy Hop. The year of the Lindy's first appearance was in 1937, following a group named Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, who were based out of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Early depictions of jazz dance in films have been criticized for their compilation of activities unrelated to jazz dance (such as acrobatics and humor sketches), as well as the Hollywood depictions of African Americans. Early films would either be produced with all-black casts (such as Cabin in the Sky ), or sections of the films would be able to be removed depending on the area in which the film was shown. The Lindy Hop, as well as many other improvisational dance moves, have been difficult to capture on film as jazz dance is "both an improvisational and individualistic practice and a collaborative one". Other media appearances of the Lindy Hoppers included the MGM musical Everybody Sing! and the film Radio City Revels .


Throughout its history, jazz dance has developed in parallel to popular music. Jazz dance takes place with an existing song or movement pattern, and dancers "feel and fill out" impromptu variations based on the feelings of the performer and the audience's response to the music. This pattern of development has resulted in a few elements of movement key to the dance style, the most important being that jazz is they physical embodiment of the popular music of a given time. An example of this is that during a down time of jazz dancing from 1945–1954, when big bands and dance halls were declining, the vernacular of the dance followed less jazz music and leaned more toward rock and roll, creating moves like "The Monkey" and "The Jerk".

Syncopated rhythm is a common characteristic in jazz music that was adapted to jazz dance in the early twentieth century and has remained a significant characteristic.It was first introduced by Louis Armstrong with his "late beat sing" and was translated from jazz music to dance. [4]

Isolations are a quality of movement that were introduced to jazz dance by Katherine Dunham.

Improvisation was an important element in early forms of jazz dance, as it is an important element of jazz music. [4]

A low center of gravity and high level of energy are other important identifying characteristics of jazz dance. Other elements of jazz dance are less common and are the stylizations of their respective choreographers. One such example are the inverted limbs and hunched-over posture of Bob Fosse.

Prominent forms of jazz dance

Lindy Hop: Historically one of the most known swing jazz moves in vernacular dance, the Lindy Hop emerged onto American dance floors after the popularity of "Dance-til-you-drop marathons" died out. George "Shorty" Snowden is accredited with the naming of this famous dance move and is noteworthy in the creation of the dance as a form of popular social dance. It first emerged in the Savoy Ballroom in New York and continued to spread to the rest of the country. This dance includes fancy footwork, musicality, personal styling, and improvisation, and was eventually incorporated into travelling dance troupes, such as Whitie's Lindy Hoppers, repertoire.

Shag: Beginning in the 1920s in New Orleans, the shag was another style of vernacular jazz. It gained popularity through college aged dancers who enjoyed the ragtime music of the city. It is usually danced to up beat tempos in 6/8 time while couples dance together, face-to-face or side-to-side. Although the dance is energetic and high intensity, the dancers are made to look like they are floating across the floor because of the acrobatic dance moves involved. [9]

Notable directors, dancers, and choreographers

  • Michael Bennett, director, writer, choreographer, and dancer who was a tony award winner. A Chorus Line and Dream Girls are examples of some of his work.
  • Busby Berkley, movie choreographer in the 1930s and 1940s famous for geometric pattern and kaleidoscopic arrangements
  • Jack Cole, considered the father of jazz dance technique. [10] He was a key inspiration to Matt Mattox, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and many other choreographers. He is credited with popularizing the theatrical form of jazz dance with his great number of choreographic works on television and Broadway. [11]
  • Katherine Dunham, an anthropologist, choreographer, and pioneer in Black theatrical dance. She introduced isolations jazz dance. [5]
  • Eugene Louis Facciuto (a.k.a. "Luigi"), an accomplished dancer who, after suffering a crippling automobile accident in the 1950s, created a new style of jazz dance based on the warm-up exercises he invented to circumvent his physical handicaps. The exercise routine he created for his own rehabilitation became the world's first complete technique for learning jazz dance.
  • Bob Fosse, a noted jazz choreographer who created a new form of jazz dance that was inspired by Fred Astaire and the burlesque and vaudeville styles.
  • Gus Giordano, an influential jazz dancer and choreographer, known for his clean, precise movement qualities.
  • Michael Jackson, known as "The King of Pop"
  • Leon James, authentic Jazz dancers from the 1930s original member of "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
  • Gene Kelly, award winning dance film icon. Known for continuing his career for over 60 years. Work can be found in Singin' in the Rain and On the Town.
  • Frankie Manning, Lindy Hop and authentic Jazz dancer and choreographer
  • Norma Miller, known worldwide as the "Queen of Swing" Lindy Hop and authentic Jazz dancer and choreographer
  • Al Minns, authentic Jazz dancers from the 1930s original member of "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers
  • Jerome Robbins, choreographer for a number of hit musicals, including Peter Pan , The King and I , Fiddler on the Roof , Gypsy , Funny Girl , and West Side Story .
  • Gwen Verdon, known for her roles in Damn Yankees , Chicago , and Sweet Charity .
  • David Winters known for his role as A-Rab in West Side Story and as an award-winning choreographer for movies and TV programs.