Gus Giordano can count the Jazz Dance World Congress, held this month in Phoenix, as one of his may jazz creations
It's hard to remember that there was jazz dance before Gus Giordano. Like no one else, he has developed a specific jazz movement vocabulary and style, written a definitive text, and codified what had been largely improvised into a specific technique. He has created not only a body of choreographed work to back it up but also a thirty-six-year-old concert jazz dance company that bears his name and is more heavily booked than ever before. Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago performs new and restaged works by Giordano and other talented choreographers, many of whom derive their dance heritage from his legacy. In 1924, when he was getting himself born in St. Louis, Missouri, jazz was only beginning to wend its way up from Dixie to northern cities, picking up some blues and ragtime along the way while remaining largely improvisational. Five-year-old August learned the shuffle, "The Shoeshiner's Drag," from a cousin on a visit to New Orleans. After that, he was always a dancer, studying with local and visiting teachers and learning dance, mostly ballet and theatrical dance, whenever and wherever he could (often performing on Mississippi riverboats).
In the 1920s dancers were moving to newly risque partner dance, traditional folk dances, vaudeville-style lines or song and dance acts, and showgirl parade walks. If The Jazz Singer, the first successful "talking picture," could bring recorded music to the local movie theater, could the golden age of dance production numbers be far behind? Thanks to the New Deal's Rural Electrification Project, the sound of jazz on radio or records could reach even the most remote corner of the U.S. Meanwhile, Duncan, Denishawn, Dunham, and full-blown modern dance were seen in concert. Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes (1936) gave jazz a big boost on Broadway, where Jack Cole was fusing ethnic styles with American swing and jazz rhythms.
Young August was watching, listening, and trying out styles for himself during this time. World War II intervened, and Giordano became a United States Marine after first trying to become a paratrooper. "I've never been much of a jumper, even to this day," he admits. His only scar from the war is the Marine tattoo on his right arm. But his time in the service earned him his college education on the G.I. Bill. Majoring in creative writing and minoring in dance, Giordano earned a B.A. degree from the University of Missouri; he also met and married his life and business partner, Peg, while there.
Between semesters, he was in New York City, auditioning with such dancers as Peter Gennaro and Buzz Miller and giving four shows a day, between films, at the Roxy. After graduation, Gus appeared on Broadway as a dancer in Paint Your Wagon, Wish You Were Here, and a revival of On the Town, plus an assortment of television variety shows. While working he studied with Katherine Dunham when she had her school in New York City. (He danced with other alums at the Circle of Dance awards 1992 tribute to Dunham in St. Louis.) He also credits Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais for their influence on his technique and choreography.
"In 1955, no dancer left a show," he recalls. "If you were in Oklahoma! and it ran nine years, you made that your career." Gus and Peg decided that New York City was not the best place to raise a family, however, after they had Patrick, their first child. When Gus learned that the Equity office was looking for someone to stage a film festival in Chicago, he applied and was accepted. Along with a house in Wilmette, the Giordanos bought a former bowling alley at 614 Davis Street, Evanston, Illinois, just blocks from Lake Michigan, where they opened the Gus Giordano Dance Center. Sixty-seven students signed up, and soon it was attracting dance students from nearby Northwestern University. …