Carrying the Jazz Dance Torch
Hayes, Hannah Maria, Dance Teacher
EDUCATORS MAKE A CASE FOR KEEPING THE HISTORY ALIVE IN THE STUDIO.
Ask your students what their favorite dance television show is and most will probably say So You Think You Can Dance. However, the producers of the popular competition/reality show routinely describe dances as jazz when they often have very little jazz quality and are technically more contemporary or hip hop, says Bob Boross, a New York City teacher and director of Bob Boross Freestyle Jazz Dance.
What's the harm in that? Experts say the misinterpretation of jazz dance, along with teachers who focus on contemporary styles and a general lack of knowledge about the artform, is helping to contribute to the loss of jazz dance's historical and cultural lineage. Patricia Cohen, who studied with Matt Matrox, Luigi and Lynn Simonson, works with ballet students in her capacity as academic advisor to the NYU/American Ballet Theatre Ballet Pedagogy Program. She claims that a full understanding of jazz dance can help dancers to better embody the work of any choreographer or culture. Yet too often, she says, jazz dance students walk away from their studies with strong technique, but without the knowledge or background of how the artform started or has changed through the years.
"Many times people think jazz dance just needs to he sexy and face the audience and have a lot of tricks," says Nora Ambrosio, professor and chair of the department of dance at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and author of Learning about Dance. "People need to step away from that and realize that this is an artform that has a rich cultural history, especially for our country."
Jazz dance grew our of African music and dance roots, including jazz music. It is based on stylistic vernacular movements (social dances created outside of a studio), but during the 1950s, a split from vernacular-based jazz dance (cakewalk, Charleston, jitterbug, swing, etc.) created a the-atrical-based version of jazz dance with Caribbean and Latin American influences. This is the version that can now be seen on Broadway and in the codified forms of jazz dance from masters such as Mattox, Luigi and Gus Giordano.
But whether or not the goal is theatrical, Cohen says jazz dance should not be learned in order to please an audience. "After all, it is essentially vernacular-dance of the people," she says. "It is passed down to please oneself and one's peers, to challenge them and to find kinetic joy."
To be included in the jazz dance heritage, Boross says, a dance work should embody a noticeable amount of traditional jazz dance movement characteristics. That would include dancing in plié, movement that emanates from the pelvis and through the extremities, isolations, syncopation, dynamic extremes, strong energy flow either in visible bursts or in contained format (hot vs. cool), and letting the movement reflect reactions to rhythmic accompaniment.
Jazz dance, together with jazz music, is a living form of American history because it reflects the social, political and religious issues of the era in which the dances were created and made popular. That is why, in order to be fully knowledgeable, dancers and choreographers must learn the vernacular and understand how it informs contemporary feeling, says Boross. One example: Michael Jackson was credited with creating the Moonwalk, but 1920s vaudeville performers who had extracted it from mime technique performed the movement on a regular basis. "Dancers from today's time period have no exposure to that potent source," says Boross. "So their movement ability is deficient, if you are talking about understanding the original feeling." To focus exclusively on the contemporary style, which tends to be a mix of ballet and modern with few jazz qualities, "without mastering the deep well of potential and power than can be found in the vernacular," says Boross, "is a wasted opportunity to expand and improve one's expressive skills. …