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Brief History of Jazz & Musical Theatre Dance. By Wendy Oliver Adapted by Sara MacInnes for use with Dance 11 students at Millwood High School. Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Co. Origins of Jazz Dance. Found in the rhythms and movements of African dance brought to the US by slaves.

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Brief History of Jazz

& Musical TheatreDance

By Wendy Oliver

Adapted by Sara MacInnes

for use with Dance 11 students at

Millwood High School

Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Co.

origins of jazz dance
Origins of Jazz Dance
  • Found in the rhythms and movements of African dance brought to the US by slaves.
  • As slaves, Africans were cut off from families, languages, and tribal traditions.
  • Slaveowners forbade drumming and African dancing, yet slaves found ways to express their cultural identity by stamping, clapping, and making rhythmic vocal sounds.
  • African Americans created new, hybrid forms of dance that blended elements from new and old cultures; eventually these dances evolved into jazz dance.

Adzido Pan-African Dance Co.

vintage jazz
Vintage Jazz
  • The youth of the 20s scandalized their elders in the cabarets, night clubs, and speakeasies that replaced the ballrooms of pre-war days.
  • Jazz originated at the close of the nineteenth century in the seamy dance halls and brothels of the South and Midwest where the word Jazz commonly referred to sexual intercourse.
  • Southern blacks, delivered from slavery a few decades before, started playing European music with Afro modifications.
  • The Savoy ballroom was an example of a dance hall which served the predominately African-American neighbourhoods and was known for it’s jazz in the 20s, 30s and 40s
1920 s
  • After WWI in the 1920’s, jazz dance and music became part of the American social scene.
  • Dixieland jazz music was popular, along with the Charleston (first use of isolations in social dance)
  • Partnered social dance to jazz music was the “popular dance” of the era.
1930 s swing era
1930’s: Swing Era
  • The time of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and big bands.
  • Well-known dances of this time were the jitterbug and the boogie-woogie.
  • Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire danced in many famous movies during this time.
  • Jazz music and jazz dance were inseparable.
1940 s wwii era
1940’s: WWII Era
  • WWII put a stop to the popularity of social jazz dance.
  • Also, jazz music was evolving into a style called “bebop,” which was rhythmically complicated and hard to dance to.
  • Jazz dance moved from the dance halls to the stage, becoming prominent in Broadway shows and movies.
  • Jazz dance became influenced by ballet and modern dance as it became more professionalized.
  • Jazz choreographers developed specific techniques to train dancers for shows.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers


mid century musicals
Mid-century Musicals
  • In 1943, Oklahoma marked the beginning of dance as a major part of musicals; choreographed by Agnes DeMille.
  • Singin’ in the Rain was choreographed by Gene Kelly in 1952, starring Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
  • West Side Story was choreographed in 1957 by Jerome Robbins, also known for his work in ballet.
  • Musical theatre choreographers blended jazz with other dance forms to create dances that worked with a specific story.


Singin’ in the Rain

singin in the rain
Singin’ In The Rain

Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly,and Debbie Reynolds (only 18 at the time) starred in this 1952 classic movie about the early days of talking pictures.

Dance (including tap, soft shoe, ballroom) played a large role in this movie. The title number shows Kelly kicking and splashing in the gutter during a downpour, brandishing his umbrella and jumping on a lampost to express his exhuberance.


Katherine Dunham

  • An African-American dancer who studied towards a doctorate in anthropology
  • Researched Caribbean dance and brought vocabulary back to US
  • Rekindled an interest in Black roots of jazz dance
  • Had her own dance company and dance technique;also choreographed for Broadway
  • Her 1939 show Tropics & Le Jazz Hot was an immediate hit
  • Eventually established a school in East St. Louis

Cabin in the Sky

jack cole father of jazz dance technique
Jack Cole, “Father of Jazz Dance Technique”
  • Developed an innovative training technique using body isolations and movements borrowed from Eastern culture
  • Choreographed for film and Broadway including the shows Kismet (1953),Man of La Mancha (1966), & Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  • He also served as a movement coach to Marilyn Monroe and other actors.


  • In the 1960’s, dancer Luigi became famous
  • Developed his technique as result of car accident which left him
  • paralyzed on right side. Doctors said he’d never walk again, but operations, physical therapy, and his own dance technique brought
  • him back to health.
  • His technique requires extreme muscle control, and grace; it is influenced by ballet.
  • In his youth, he danced in many movies including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “White Christmas.”
  • Known as a master teacher rather than a choreographer
bob fosse
Bob Fosse
  • Performed in vaudeville and Broadway beginning as a child
  • Became famous in the 1970’s for shows such as Sweet Charity (1967) and Chicago (1975).
  • Movie All That Jazz (1979) was about his life in the fast lane
  • First director to win an Oscar, Tony, and Emmy in one year (1973).
  • His style has been called “slick, erotic, and intense.”
characteristics of jazz dance today
Characteristics of Jazz Dance Today
  • Bent knees, low center of gravity
  • Body isolations
  • Syncopation
  • Pirouettes & high kicks
  • Movement emanating from torso and pelvis
  • Percussive movements
  • Jazz shoes
jazz dance music
Jazz Dance & Music
  • Most jazz choreographers today work with current popular music, not jazz music; jazz dance has mostly separated from its original source
  • However, there are a few jazz choreographers who believe that jazz dance should be done to jazz music
  • Danny Buraczeski says “Jazz is such rich music. I don’t use it as atmosphere or background. The music is the subject matter.”

Danny Buraczeski

more about music
More About Music
  • Billy Siegenfeld says that jazz dance must have “swing,” which is a syncopated rhythm (accents on the offbeat)
  • He says “jazz dance must be judged for its “jazzness” by the same criterion applied to jazz music…It’s the rhythm…not the melody, and not the harmony.”
  • “As a proponent of swinging jazz dance…I feel that this yoking of rock music and jazz movement constitutes a paradox. I am interested in challenging this practice.”
  • His company is the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

Billy Siegenfeld

mia michaels
Mia Michaels
  • Has her own company, Reality at Work (R.A.W.), and choreographs musicals
  • Has toured Korea, Europe, and US
  • Unisex style which sometimes requires women to lift men
  • Uses huge dynamic range, ear-high extensions, and balletic leg beats.
twyla tharp
Twyla Tharp
  • Choreographer/director of Movin’ Out, (opened in 2002) on Broadway, with music by Billy Joel; about a group of friends as they move through the decades
  • Named “Best Show of the Year” by Time Magazine
  • Tharp also has her own modern dance company, and has choreographed for ballet companies
  • She has choreographed films including White Nights with Barishnikov and Gregory Hines, and Amadeus
  • She has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates
susan stroman
Susan Stroman
  • Directed & choreographed Mel Brooks’ The Producers, winner of the 2001 “Best Musical” Tony Award
  • Created Contact (1999), a Broadway musical based on three stories told in dance; she says, “Every step I do is plot-oriented.”
  • Has also choreographed for the Martha Graham Dance Co. and the New York City Ballet


The Producers

savion glover
Savion Glover

In 1996, at the age of 22, Glover created (with George Wolfe) Bring in Da’ Noise, Bring in Da’ Funk. This show traced the history of Black Americans including slavery, chain gangs, and street life, but didn’t have a plot or characters. Dancing was the primary focus of the show.

jazz musical theatre dance today
Jazz & Musical Theatre Dance Today
  • Musical Theatre Dance today is still strongly based on jazz dance, although other influences are also apparent
  • There are many varieties of jazz dance today, including African, lyrical, modern, and rock
  • Jazz dance has responded over the decades to the needs and desires of those doing it, from social dance to professional performance
  • Related trends like break dancing and hip hop have also influenced jazz dance
  • Jazz dance remains strongly linked to the popular music of our time
references for images
References for Images…/Fall97/DC.09-10-97/jazz.gif

references cont
References cont.’
  • (Glover)
  • Reynolds, Nancy & McCormick, Malcolm. No Fixed Points. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Stearns, Jean and Marshall. Jazz Dance. New York: Schirmer Books, 1964.
  • Ambrosio, Nora. Learning About Dance. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 2003.
  • Sigenfeld, Billy. “If Jazz Dance, Then Jazz Music!” in Dance Teacher Now, October, 1990, pp 50-54.