Sandy Brown Jazz




Jazz Dance

by Howard Lawes



Jazz Dancers


Unlike many other books on Jazz, John Fordham's classic work "JAZZ - History, Instruments, Musicians, Recordings" (Dorling Kindersley, 1993) includes a section entitled Dance Roots in which he describes how "jazz and dance grew up together".  Fordham eloquently describes how music, song and dance in Africa had been central to religion and culture for generations; how dance movements were intended to communicate with the spirits of ancestors and even though the slave trade devastated African communities, it could not erase the memory of the rituals, the emotion and the spiritual nature of dance.

Various styles of African-inspired culture and religion developed, relating both to the parts of Africa slaves departed from and also the country to which they were shipped. The greatest number arrived in South America and in the state of Bahia and elsewhere in Brazil, a religion called Candomblé (meaning "dance in honour of the gods") combined elements from African cultures, including the Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon, as well as some elements of Catholicism and indigenous South American beliefs. Orisha statues and statuettes (deified ancestors) were created as a focus for worship. One of the most famous hybrids of African and European music is samba, originating in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, and during the 20th century becoming inextricably linked with the huge carnivals that take place over several days prior to Lent and the Christian festival of Easter.

Throughout the Caribbean, there is a strong African influence in music, song and dance.  In Haiti, a hybrid of African and the Roman Catholic religion became known as 'vodou'; rituals involved drumming, dancing around a Potomitan (a pole or tree that provides a conduit for spirits) and sacrifice to honour the deity - vodouists believe that dance is a vital part of these ceremonies.  In Cuba, African slaves were allowed by the Spanish to form social clubs called 'cabildos' that preserved some of the culture of their tribal communities; drumming, songs and dances provided solace and a way of resisting European dominance.  Afro-Cuban music is Quadrillevery often based on a clave rhythm, variations of which form the basis of rumba, son, salsa, mambo and latin-jazz.  In Jamaica, where the colonialists were British protestants, different styles of music, song and dance emerged, slaves were even instructed to dance a European dance called the 'quadrille' as a form of entertainment for the plantation owners.




A hybridised form of music developed called 'mento', African in that it featured African rhythms and a call and response type of singing but used British ideas of harmony, verse and chorus. There are many other examples of music, song and dance inspired by African culture throughout the Caribbean and these have evolved into modern, popular music such as calypso, reggae and ska. 

In North America, the story of slavery is rather more complex and informs how music, song and dance evolved.  Prior to the end of the 17th century the British, French and Spanish colonialists were enslaving native Americans rather than Africans, in the years that followed slaves of African heritage were more likely to have been purchased in the Caribbean than shipped directly from Africa and in fact only 5% of the total of approximately 12 million Africans sold into slavery were shipped directly to North America. The importation of slaves to North America was banned in 1808, but their population still increased by reproduction, rather than being continually supplemented with new arrivals. Enslaved peoples formed communities with perhaps a more varied heritage than hitherto. Communities arranged social events, usually at night, with singing and dancing but after the Stono Slave Rebellion in 1730 slave dances were outlawed along with drums, horns and other loud instruments as plantation owners suspected that drumming was used to send subversive messages. In response to the loss of drums, slaves reverted to juba dances that involved stomping as well as slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. Slaves in South America and the Caribbean retained their drums which resulted in music and rhythms from these regions having a distinctly different character.


Congo Square Dancers



One place where slaves were allowed to gather, dance and trade was Congo Square - a commemorative plaque in New Orleans relates that "The gathering of enslaved African vendors in Congo Square originated as early as the late 1740s during Louisiana's French colonial period and continued during the Spanish colonial era as one of the city's public markets.  By 1803, Congo Square had become famous for gatherings of enslaved Africans who drummed, danced, sang and traded on Sunday afternoons.  By 1819 these gatherings numbered as many as 500 to 600 people.  Among the most famous dances were the Bamboula, the Caliinda and the Congo.  These African cultural expressions gradually developed into Mardi Gras Indian traditions, the Second line and eventually New Orleans jazz and rhythm and blues".




Following the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln planned to provide for former slaves and even give them the right to vote, but sadly his assassination in 1865 and the appointment of president Andrew Johnson dealt a huge blow to such reforms. The southern states were allowed to implement new "Black Codes" that restricted the freedoms of former slaves and in many cases re-established slave labour in all but name.  Not content with the subjugation of  African American people, white theatre audiences enjoyed the spectacle of the songs and dances of slaves being caricatured by white performers with black faces.  Such entertainment, known as 'minstrelsy', was popular in the latter half of the 19th century, before being supplanted by vaudeville, but it is hard to believe that the BBC featured a modern version called The Black and White Minstrel Show for 20 years until 1978. In their book "The Essential Guide to Jazz Dance" by Dollie Henry and Paul Jenkins, the authors point out that minstrelsy worked both ways, in some cases black performers caricatured white people and as the genre became more popular it provided work for both black and white performers. As they say "On the one hand, it brought the black expression of dance and music to a wider and more The Cakewalkdiverse national demographic while on the other it was the beginning of the mass appropriation of black, populist, creative art".  One of the dances popular with minstrelsy show audiences originated as a competition on plantations whereby slaves parodied the mannerisms of their owners, winners won cakes and so the dance was called the 'Cakewalk'.

The Cakewalk


The hostile environment of the southern states encouraged a huge migration of African Americans to the north over an extended period and of course, they took their music and dance with them. One of the first of these dances was tap dance, pioneered by William Henry Lane, also known as Master Juba in recognition of the juba dances that slaves danced without drums. Lane blazed a trail for black dancers and even performed in England and Scotland in 1848, but it took several more decades for black performers to be accepted in mainstream theatre on Broadway. The show that broke the mould was called Shuffle Along, opening on Broadway in 1921, and although it may have retained some of the less attractive elements of minstrelsy it did include genuine drama and romance performed by an all-black cast. Poet and activist Langston Hughes credited Shuffle Along with launching the Harlem Renaissance, paralleling the Jazz Age, and it certainly provided the foundation for the careers of several black artists, one of which was dancer Josephine Baker.  The Broadway show pivotal in establishing jazz dance in the mainstream was called Runnin' Wild. Opening in 1923, it featured tap dance and a group of chorus dancers called the 'Dancing Redcaps' who performed the Charleston accompanied by the cast patting Juba. Another show, called Josephine BakerDinah, was staged in Harlem in 1924, and in 1925 a jazz composition by Jelly Roll Morton popularised another dance called the Black Bottom. Loosely adapted from juba dances, the Charleston and Black Bottom are two dances that almost defined the Jazz Age, not least because couples no longer danced in unison.  


Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston.


Ironically the Jazz Age marked a distancing of jazz music (played by smaller combos) from jazz dance. Such jazz music tended to be played in small, and during the prohibition era, secretive venues in New Orleans, New York and other major cities where African Americans had emigrated while the Charleston, Black Bottom and other dance styles such as swing and lindy-hop needed space and demanded dance bands such as those led by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.  One such venue that provided excellent facilities for dancing was the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, opening in 1926 it could accommodate 4,000 dancers and did not impose a colour bar as many other establishments did.  It was famous for its lindy-hop and swing dancers who developed ever more skillful and acrobatic moves. In the 1930s, choreographer Frankie Manning was a leading dancer at The Savoy Ballroom. Frankie developed sophisticated lindy-hop routines for ensembles of dancers who went on to appear in numerous Hollywood films. Duke Ellington's famous composition "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" illustrates a fundamental property of jazz music in that it encourages a visceral response from the listener, swing dance is a manifestation of that response and is intimately connected to swing jazz.



The Lindy Hop scene from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin':




While few jazz dancers followed the example of Master Juba and travelled to Europe, there were exceptions.  One of these was Josephine Baker who first appeared on the Broadway stage in Shuffle Along.  Baker travelled to Paris to perform in a successful show called Les Ballets Negres and subsequently at Les Folies Bergere.  So popular did she become in France that she made her home there and subsequently indulged in wartime espionage using her role as singer and dancer to gain intelligence for the French resistance for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre. She was also a campaigner against racism, once sharing a platform with Martin Luther-King.  Bill Bojangles Robinson was an internationally famous tap dancer who visited Europe in 1927, he was best known for dancing on his toes (rather than flat-footed) which produced a different and varied tap sound and his rhythmically complex signature stair dance, which he danced as a duet with the child star Shirley Temple in the 1935 film Little Colonel.  Robinson was an outstanding dancer, becoming the most highly paid African American performer in the 1930, but as a product of vaudeville, he was unfairly subjected to criticism that he appeared to accept racial stereotyping to gain access to the white, entertainment establishment. Nina Simone's song, Mr Bojangles, poignantly highlights the problems that entertainers faced before becoming famous although there is disagreement as to whether the song is actually about Bill Robinson; sadly he ended his life penniless.


A video of Bill Robinson (Mr Bojangles) dancing in the movie Stormy Weather.





The 20 year period from the early 1930s to 1950s produced a remarkable array of jazz dancers who performed in every venue from jazz clubs to dance halls, in Broadway shows and Hollywood movies and around the world.  The dancers, both male and female The Nicholas Brotherscame from a variety of backgrounds and while some became famous in New York clubs, others reached international audiences through cinema.  Cholly Atkins and Holly Coles epitomised the "class act", elegantly dressed and dancing impeccably as a duo; the three Berry Brothers and two Nicholas brothers danced at the Cotton Club in New York and were known to compete to perform the most acrobatic or dramatic moves. 


The Nicholas Brothers


Fred Astaire with partners Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charise and others adapted jazz dance, regaining some of the style of the ballroom and were hugely popular. The film Stormy Weather (1943) was one of the few examples to feature  African Americans in roles; Bill Robinson and Lena Horne were the stars while Cab Calloway and Fats Waller provided the music and the Nicholas Brothers, dancing to Jumpin' Jive provided one of the most outstanding dance sequences ever seen on screen.  Another film to feature outstanding choreography was Singing in the Rain (1952) starring Gene Kelly and while Gene Kelly's style was all his own this did include elements of jazz, and other dance genres that have continued to influence contemporary dance to this day.



Here is a 'colorized' video of Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers with Jumpin' Jive from Stormy Weather.




1959 is famously remembered as the year that changed jazz and perhaps 1957 could be described as the year that changed dance, as it was during 1957 that a modern-day version of Romeo And Juliet opened on Broadway - West Side Story.  The story of 1950s New York, told in song and dance, enraptured audiences around the world. The score composed by Leonard Bernstein is a mix of musical forms including jazz and  latin-american rhythms and along with earlier compositions of George Gershwin (such as Alvin Ailey RevelationsRhapsody In Blue) created a new and unique style of American music. The choreography by Jerome Robbins, fusing ballet and jazz dance, had the same impact on dance.


It is perhaps important to distinguish between theatre dance and concert dance; so while great theatre dance like West Side Story has a narrative associated with it, concert dance stands on its own merits as performance art. Dance schools for African Americans were few and far between, but two pioneering educators Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham formed their own dance companies in 1944 and 1945 respectively. In 1945 Primus choreographed a piece called Strange Fruit based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, which had also been released as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939.

In 1958, choreographer Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and this proved to be both a showcase for African American dance and a nursery for new, African American choreographers.  In 1960 Ailey created his seminal work, Revelations, set to a suite of traditional spirituals and inspired by the writing of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Revelations explores the emotional spectrum of the human condition, from the deepest of grief to the holiest joy. In 1963 the company performed with Duke Ellington and in 1974 Ailey created his dance tribute to Ellington using Ellington's own music.  In 1980 Alvin Ailey choreographed a classic jazz dance called Phases with the music from each of five sections composed by significant African American jazz musicians. Some of those that honed their craft with Alvin Ailey include Arthur Mitchell who created the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and George Faison, a prolific choreographer who founded Universal Dance Experience in 1971.



Alvin Ailey's Dance Theatre and Rock My Soul In The Bosom Of Abraham.




In the UK, the 1950s and 1960s saw the arrival of immigrants from Caribbean countries that were once part of the British Empire. Communities became established with a culture that still retained elements of African heritage but as mentioned above, these elements differed from those from American.  A paper by Jane Carr (Researching British (Underground) Jazz Dancing c1979-1990', in Adair, C and Burt, R, (eds) Routledge (2017)) explores the cultural significance of the styles of jazz dancing in order to initiate consideration of how the dancers negotiated the complex interplays of ‘race’, class and gender during a turbulent period of recent British history. .

Shows incorporating dance theatre, sometimes mixing ballet with elements of jazz continue to be hugely popular to this day, some of the classics are Cabaret (1966, choreographed by Ron Field),  A Chorus Line (1975, choreographed by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian), Chicago (1975, choreographed by Bob Fosse) and Cats (1981, choreographer Gillian Lynne). Alongside this, concert dance flourished under the banner of 'contemporary dance' with many companies active such as those led by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor in America, London Contemporary Dance and Rambert in the UK, and many others worldwide.  However for those who value the jazz dance vernacular as a valuable part of  African American heritage or indeed the Essential Guide To Jazz Danceheritage of the African diaspora, the fact that types of dance were widely but incorrectly labelled as 'jazz dance' was a considerable sadness. 

A book, published in 1986 by Marshall and Jean Stearns called "Jazz Dance" even had a chapter called Requiem that discussed the current state of jazz dance in depressing terms.  Luckily, a more recent book, "The Essential Guide to Jazz Dance" (2019) by Dollie Henry and Paul Jenkins is rather more upbeat.  This very readable book, (and invaluable source of information for this article) describes the history, the music, and development of the genre as well as providing a text for the dance teacher and student.  Long before their book was published Henry had founded the Body of People Jazz Theatre Company and in 1999, Dollie joined forces with jazz trumpeter, music producer, composer and music director Paul Jenkins and together they have created a unique theatre production company rooted in the expression of the jazz art form and creative traditions. Several companies also exist in America, and one in France founded by Rick Odums who studied at the Alvin Ailey company.

According to Dollie Henry, who was awarded the MBE in the Queen's Platinum Jubilee Honours List for Service to Dance, "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" or in other words, it isn't jazz dance unless it is danced to jazz music. 

One example, harking back to the juba dances that came straight out of Africa is Juba Jump while others use arrangements of classic jazz to exquisite effect such as this piece called Footprints.  As with so much performance art, the Covid pandemic had a huge impact, but "Through The Eyes Of Woman" is a new BOP Jazz Dance Theatre work in development. It fuses the inspirational words of female orators Maya Angelou and Jewel Mathieson with the female voices of the BOP Company and is set against original jazz music composition and orchestration by Paul Jenkins. It is directed and choreographed by Dollie Henry and represents for BOP a move into a new era of Jazz Theatre creativity and artistry.



We can see a trailer for Through The Eyes Of Woman.




Other pioneers of this jazz dance style include the groups Body Function, The Jazz Defektors, Jazzcotech, The Floor Technicians, Brothers in Jazz, and the Backstreet Kids.  Sometimes dance groups from different cities engaged in exciting competitions but as music tastes changed, so did styles of dance. This video clip shows the IDJ (I Dance Jazz) group dancing a home-grown version of jazz dance, influenced not only by the dance stars of New York's Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom but also something distinctly Caribbean:




Jazz dance, just like jazz music, continues to evolve and for some, change can cause problems, but what is equally important for both art forms is that the heritage is preserved and remembered and that this human history continues to inform new developments.  




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Other pages you might find of interest :

Martin Pyne - Spirits Of Absent Dancers
Ole Man Mose Is Banned
The Story Is Told
Time Out Ten

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