Standing Its Ground: Why Jazz Belongs in Universities

By Kay, Lauren | Dance Magazine, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Standing Its Ground: Why Jazz Belongs in Universities


Kay, Lauren, Dance Magazine


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Compared to modern dance and ballet in college dance departments, jazz sometimes looks like the neglected stepchild: At many institutions, other techniques far outnumber jazz courses. But is this in the best interest of the aspiring dancer? Three leading jazz educators--Danny Buraczeski of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Sheron Wray of the University of California at Irvine, and Peter Bertini of Philadelphia's University of the Arts--believe jazz is integral to every dancer's development. "The lion's share of work available outside of concert dance companies is in musical theater and on TV," says Wray. "Both areas are influenced by jazz. So if your department is there to enable students to get a career as well as an education, you're doing them a disservice if you cut the jazz program or classes. Jazz deserves a voice." DM investigates the case not only for keeping but expanding university jazz classes.

IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING With genres like "contemporary," "lyrical," and "commercial" now popular, it can be easy to forget what defines jazz at its core. All three experts agree that the connection of dancing to music is jazz's most basic element. "Simply put, jazz dance is what you do to jazz music," says Buraczeski. Wray adds, "Unlike modern, where dance and music can be independent, the two are inextricably linked in jazz."

The syncopation and improvisational riffs of jazz music give rise to the aesthetics of jazz dance. "The quality of swing and not being straight on the beat; of being low to the ground; of working with broken lines instead of ballet's elongated lines--these stem from the music," says Buraczeski. Jazz's blues and African influences created its weighted effect. "The feel that the music puts in the body is energized and grounded," Bertini explains.

WHAT JAZZ HAS TO OFFER Of the many worthwhile aspects of jazz class, says Wray, first and foremost is the emphasis on improvisation. Just as jazz musicians rift off a basic structure, so jazz dancers are encouraged to find freedom within form. "To truly be a jazz artist means to be able to speak in the language yourself," Wray says. "It teaches dancers to dance without it being a literal representation of someone else's choreography." In some of her more advanced classes, Wray throws in improvisational across-the-floor phrases. "I create a short phrase and then the students have to add extension or variation, but in strict adherence to a given number of bars of music." Then, just like jazz musicians, they must "be able to go back to the main phrase."

The link between jazz music and dance also offers a window into American cultural history. "Jazz music and dance are two of America's greatest artistic contributions to world culture," says Buraczeski. "Jazz dance reconnects students to American heritage." He makes an effort to introduce the music and dance within a historical context. …

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