Lyrical Jazz Dance Defined

By Netting, Leslie D. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Lyrical Jazz Dance Defined


Netting, Leslie D., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


There is a need to educate the general public that there are two distinct areas of jazz dance, namely, commercial jazz dance and lyrical jazz dance. In the 1970s, a major transitional period was marked by the advent of new communications media, more leisure time, and a renewed interest in participation in movement activities. With these changes came a widespread knowledge and enjoyment of commercial jazz dance. This form of jazz dance, performed for movement and pleasure's sake, was readily accepted because it exudes the contemporary pulse and rhythms of daily life in America. The qualities of commercial jazz dance allow for a more universal acceptance. This ever-changing dance form parallels today's music and is an expression of society's natural movements and temperaments. Commercial jazz dance has become accessible to the lay person as it integrates easily with theater, television, films, and nightclub entertainment. Furthermore, it has thrived in neighborhood dance studios because it does not take years of training for students to gain immediate success.

With the onslaught of commercial jazz dance came a need to give credibility to, and thus label, the "other" jazz modality: the art form that remains constant with its own theory, technique, and idiom and is being performed on the concert stage. Initially, this was referred to as modern jazz dance in the 1930s, with the work of Jack Cole and later Matt Mattox, Jerome Robbins, Luigi, and Gus Giordano. Modern jazz dance was renamed lyrical jazz dance because of the misconception that it was an offshoot of modern dance. This has led to much confusion.

Lyrical jazz dance has been denied credibility as a "true" art form, equal to ballet and modern dance, because of the lack of codification of the technique or agreement as to what constitutes the vocabulary and technique of this dance form. Codification, or the naming of specific steps and movement, which becomes the definitive terminology of the technique, contributes to the technique's longevity. The very essence of lyrical jazz dance has been misconstrued by those who define it as an interpretation of the lyrics. How can we expect credibility and respect for lyrical jazz dance if we cannot even agree on the definition?

After spending several years researching the evolution of lyrical jazz dance (which included interviewing the jazz dance legends, Luigi, Mattox, and Giordano), I derived the following definition:

Lyrical jazz dance refers to the unique style of jazz dance that expresses emotional sentiment through the use of the balletic line (not ballet steps) as a counterbalance to the percussive features of conventional jazz dance. Its rhythmic movements use the entire body, extending the body line and avoiding sharp, stationary, angular movements.

"Lyrical," then, does not refer to the quality of the music nor to the interpretation of lyrics, but rather to the lyrical quality of the movement. This is especially significant in that it is the process of lyrical jazz dance that enables the dancer to develop his or her own expressions of self. …

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