“ ... a dance form or dance that is matched to the rhythms and techniques of jazz music, developed by American blacks in the early part of the 20th century.” (Dictionary.com)
“Jazz dance is an umbrella term that can refer to several related dance styles. All of them are connected via common roots, namely tap, ballet, jazz music, and African-American rhythms and dance.” (Reference.com)
From the definitions above one can construct a general idea of what Jazz dance entails, but in order to get a clear picture and to fully grasp the very essence of this dance style, we will need to expound this dance form in context.
Where did Jazz dance originate from and how did it develop? Jazz dance’s authentic roots are traced back to African American Vernacular Dance in the late 1800’s till mid 1900’s. Those days Jazz dancing was inspired mainly by jazz music, with strong influence from tap. Post 1950, Jazz dancing reflected several social forms and styles, including the Cakewalk, Black Bottom (dance), Charleston, Jitterbug, Boogie Woogie, Swing dancing and the related Lindy Hop. It was pioneers like Katherine Dunham, Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse who really transformed jazz dance into a professional art form, with Broadway as its facilitator and international stage of entertainment.
Lester Horton was another inspirational pioneer and contributor to the Modern Jazz we have become accustomed to today. Horton developed his own approach to dance that incorporated diverse elements including Native American dances and modern Jazz dance. Horton's dance technique, which is now commonly known as Horton Technique, emphasizes a whole body approach to dance that includes flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness to enable unrestricted freedom of expression. Alvin Ailey was a student of Horton which inspired works like “Revelations” and “Cry”, performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Jazz dance, like any other art form, is an expression of trials, tribulations, societal hardships and triumphs of the times. Modern Jazz therefore had to adapt to address society’s changing needs in entertainment throughout the ages.
So what is Modern Jazz today? Today, Modern Jazz is generic in nature and has inspirational ownership in most other forms of dance, including Tap, Ballet, Contemporary, Modern Dance, African Dance, Free Style, Latin American, Hip Hop, and all other types of folk dancing. It can be best described as a series of stylized movements that has a specific theme when danced. The Jazz dance fraternity agrees that jazz dancing would be theoretically challenging without its main descriptive contributor – style. It is not uncommon to find many different forms of jazz fusion today, like street jazz.
Probably one of the latest and exciting finds in fusion jazz today is that of soco jazz, founded by Cecil de Jongh, international dancer/choreographer. (The word soco is derived from soft hip hop and contemporary). Training in the Horton Technique, Contemporary, Ballet, Latin American, Hip Hop amongst others inevitably lead to this innovative style of dancing. Performing in “Chicago the Musical” promulgated into further inspiration from Fosse. The term soco jazz, is lesser known than the style it embodies, which has become widely known in choreographic performances like “Forever Juliet” at the FNB Dance Umbrella, “Full Circle” at the Finals of the National Choreography Competition and “Requiem of a life once lived” at the State Theatre in PTA. Soco jazz is an authentic fusion of Soft Hip Hop, Contemporary and Horton technique. It lends expression methodology and musical interpretation from Latin American dance styles and resumes its position under a wide classification of Modern Jazz styles today. Moreover, this Modern jazz style is totally unique when considering its commercial essence, blending past and present theatre and entertainment principles into an explosive mix. The Jazz dancer of today would need sufficient ballet training as a basis. Think of a “skeleton” that holds the frame of the dancer. Modern Jazz would then be the “shape” enveloping the skeleton, style built on top of the technique. The one cannot function without the other.
What about the future of Modern Jazz? We all live in an increasingly changing environment, with an ever more demanding society. Not only has Jazz dance’s evolutionary ability been proven over the ages, but at specific times in history, it has revolutionised the dancing world. There is no doubt that Jazz dancing is here to stay.
To Conclude: There are many Jazz teachers and Jazz styles available today. The biggest benefit from Jazz dance is its wealth in variety. Unfortunately, the risk of taking any jazz class as an aspiring dancer means that you do not know what the calibre of teaching will be like. Anybody can be a “Jazz teacher”, as there is no regulatory body preventing poor teaching standards in jazz. It is therefore imperative that any prospective jazz dancer asks herself/himself the following questions before allowing tuition from a teacher:
Was the teacher a professional dancer before teaching? The most qualified teacher is a current or ex-professional dancer. Unfortunately there are dance teachers out there that never made their mark as a professional dancer and started teaching instead. Ask yourself, how can this person teach/coach me if he/she never made it to professional status? Are you not going to waste time and money?
In what style of dancing did this teacher train, perform and specialise? If it is not some sort of Jazz dance, be aware.
Is this teacher teaching someone else’s work, or his/her own work? Remember, in Jazz dance, there is no universally recognized syllabus and teachers are free to teach anything they want. There are many teachers today that use syllabi and steps from the internet and sell it in their classes as their own. Be aware of this, if it is not their own style, syllabus, authentic and innovative methods, how can they develop, nurture, and push the boundaries of any dancer within that style?
Modern Jazz is a performing art and cultural activity.