Jazz Dance in the Dance Curriculum: What Educators Should Know

By Ambrosio, Nora | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Jazz Dance in the Dance Curriculum: What Educators Should Know


Ambrosio, Nora, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Since the mid-nineteenth century, jazz dance has evolved from popular theatre to concert stage, from small dance studios to large universities, and from the movies to television. The term "jazz dance," which encompasses several different styles of movement, represents different things to different people.

Before defining what jazz dance is, consider what jazz dance is not. According to Friesen (1975):

In jazz and theatrical dance, long beautiful legs, an excellent figure, and a pretty, face certainly are important aspects. Other considerations seem to be technical abilities such as kicking to the top of one's head, undulating the hips and torso in provocative ways, turning rapidly, and tapping the feet accurately in accordance with a rhythmical and predictable beat. Dances of this medium are highly skillful and very entertaining, and the expectations of the percipient are only that he enjoy and perhaps appreciate the skill and attractiveness of the performers. This type of dance asks physical technique of the dancer but demands little or no symbolic illusion. It demands the least of the percipient and also is the most popular (p. 102).

Unfortunately, many dancers and dance audiences would describe jazz dance in exactly the same way. This description omits the rich history and culture that has accompanied jazz throughout the years. It also does not mention the syncopated rhythms that are specific to jazz dance and music, and provides no concept of what jazz has contributed to dance history. An unfortunate aspect of this situation is that some jazz is being performed in a way that makes it appear flat, predictable, and unimportant.

We live in an era in which the term "jazz dance" evokes images of MTV and dance routines from substandard movie musicals such as Flashdance, Saturday Night Fever, and Xanadu. Although one could argue that these dances are derived from the jazz form, they seem to have been created to quickly thrill the audience, and provide the instant gratification that the public has come to expect. Quick film editing and squarely counted (as opposed to syncopated) rhythms and movements are the norm for these dance sequences. However, not all movie musicals present dance in this manner. For example, almost any Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers movie provides excellent examples of jazz dance (as well as tap dance) choreography.

While the term "jazz dance" has been defined in several ways, several common descriptors, such as "sensual," "visceral," "improvisational," "syncopated," "hot," and "cool" are continually used. LaPointe-Crump and Staley (1992) caution against limiting jazz dance to a single definition, encouraging readers to "think of jazz as a kind of theatre dancing that is directly involved with popular, American culture. It is personified by an immediate, everyday yet formalized expression of contemporary life. Its various styles are founded upon particular rhythmic and dance step patterns" (p. 2).

The idea that jazz dance is an expression of contemporary life is an important one for dancers to know, because it describes jazz dance as being something more than "just steps." Jazz dance is presentational, and should not exclude the raw energy, emotions, and sensuality typical of jazz movements. When the idea of expression is layered on top of the movements and rhythms, the soul and immediacy of jazz dance shines through.

To keep the legacy of jazz dance alive, dance educators at all levels must present jazz dance in an artistic and aesthetically accurate manner. To this end, dance teachers should become familiar with the historical background of jazz dance, recognize the standard elements of choreography, know the philosophical opinions and aesthetic ideas of prominent jazz dancers and choreographers, and distinguish outstanding examples of popular choreography.

Historical/Cultural Background

Frequently, jazz dance is presented to students without mention of its rich cultural and historical origins. …

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