The history of Jazz dance

Jazz dance is a dance style that has its roots in Louisiana in the southern United States (New Orleans). Jazz dance is a dance of crossbreeding that has succeeded in the symbiosis of several traditions and cultures. It is a dance of encounter, of mutual curiosity, of complex inventions that arise from a context of human, ethnic and cultural mixing. 

More than three centuries of borrowings and transformations were necessary for the genesis of Jazz. It is the elaboration of a long combinatory process between the African tradition and the European tradition for both music and dance. Today, Jazz dance continues to transform itself.

Jazz dance is a dance style that has its roots in Louisiana in the southern United States (New Orleans). Jazz dance is a dance of crossbreeding that has succeeded in the symbiosis of several traditions and cultures. It is a dance of encounter, of mutual curiosity, of complex inventions that arise from a context of human, ethnic and cultural mixing. 

More than three centuries of borrowings and transformations were necessary for the genesis of Jazz. It is the elaboration of a long combinatory process between the African tradition and the European tradition for both music and dance. Today, Jazz dance continues to transform itself.

The roots of jazz dance

The roots of Jazz dance come from the plantation dances of the black American slaves. In this civilization, music and dance were collective and circumstantial practices. They were linked to all the practices and events of everyday life. 

The dance is the link with mother earth; one recovers the vital energy of the mother by dancing. One attacks the movements in a percussive way with a consummate vitality. Youth is one of the canons of beauty, so regardless of the age of the dancer, we dance as if we were 20 years old.

There is room for everyone to express themselves. All individuals participate. 

Black American plantation dance places a lot of emphasis on improvisation, it aims to let each individual express what he or she is feeling in the moment. It is the dance of the moment. Today, we can refer to it with hip-hop which is the continuation of traditional jazz.

A new spectacular genre will appear: The Minstrels Shows which will be perceived for a long time as the art of anti-black racism. 

It is the first typically American cultural event to covet, exploit and disseminate images borrowed from black culture. Culture that is represented on stage and caricatured. One of the famous characters of this spectacular genre is Jim Crow. The "black" goes on stage to make people laugh

A free black dancer will appear. He will be the first black artist to enter a "white" troupe, his stage name is Master Juba

The Minstrels Shows are very successful shows. After the Civil War they became more and more gigantic and the black man was no longer the only subject of the show. 

They will take part in the diffusion in all America of black musical and choreographic elements. They will also be a first spectacular experience for the Black Americans. 

Traditional jazz: from the 20s to the 40s. 

The 20's, called in the United States "The Jazz Age" ("The Roaring Twenties" in France), are marked by the liberation of morals and a collective quest for enjoyment. The women will acquire the right to vote and will thus emancipate themselves from the political sphere but also cultural: short skirt, short hair, the women smoke and kiss their partners in public...

The political and cultural emancipation of women establishes the desire to free themselves from the norms of a puritanical ethic. For this rebellious youth, Jazz will allow them to be different from their elders. At the beginning, Jazz is an expression of black identity and in the 1920's, it becomes the symbol of modernity, authenticity and freedom of expression for a whole white youth. Jazz music and dance will benefit from a huge popular success.

It is also the period during which young black creators will be at the origin of a varied cultural production to affirm a black identity culture. They will claim their modernity and insert themselves in the American culture. It's the Harlem Renaissance! 

We see the flowering of large dance halls and cabarets like the Cotton Club. Everything that could remind Africa, exoticism...

It is also at the Cotton Club that one could come to admire great tap dancers like Berry Brothers, Bill Robinson or the Nicholas Brothers....

With the stock market crash of 1929, the beginning of the 1930s represents the end of the Harlem Renaissance. The government set up structures for shows in which the jazz band took an important place. The swing years begin! 

With all these great swing bands that made the American population dance and sing, tap dancers are hired. 

The 1930s were also the years of the Hollywood musicals in which jazz was very standardized and choreographed. There was not much room for improvisation. 

Fred Astaire became in 1933, the leading man for the film musicals. He will create a style of dance that brings elegance to the image of the dancer. He mixed the fluidity of ballet steps with the brusqueness of jazz movements and was the first dancer to take the time to dance each note of music so that the rhythmic pattern of the music was reflected in the dance steps. Fred Astaire dances and brings the dance to life on screen.

On stage, Jack Cole, dancer and choreographer of the 1930s, is considered the father of jazz dance technique. He was the first dancer to combine the popular jazz steps of the time with aspects of modern dance and influences from Indian and African dance in his dance. 

He was the first dancer to create a jazz dance technique. His style was explosive and animal, full of emotion and movement. 

He became an important influence for some of the great performance jazz masters of the 20th century, who lit up Hollywood and Broadway with their innovative and exuberant movements. Modern jazz, which emerged in the 1950s, is an innovative form of dance that is credited to Jack Cole.


After an important period of the rise of classical dance with notably Georges Balanchine in the United States in the 1940s, jazz dance evolved into what we now call Modern-Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. This transition was the result of gradual changes in the style of Broadway choreographers. Modern-jazz does not mean that jazz dance is influenced by modern dance. It means "Jazz of today" which differentiates it from traditional black jazz. 

Jazz choreographies use the classical vocabulary as well as other technical elements of their dance that they will assemble. In the Modern-Jazz dance, there will be the notion of "dance of author, a distancing with the spectacular. One introduces the notion of works and that of the interpreter. We want to create something new and original. All this is different from traditional jazz dance in which there is a dialogue between the public and the artist, that the notion of author does not exist as well as the notion of work. Improvisation is abandoned in favor of writing and order. For the dancer, it is no longer a question of expressing himself in the moment but of working perfectly on a choreographic script. With Agnes de Miles and his musicals, Jazz dance will become narrative and expressive. The dancers are characters in the story. 

Many dancer-choreographers have participated in the evolution of this dance. Among them we can mention Katherine Dunham, who incorporated dances she observed during anthropological expeditions in the Caribbean and Africa to study tribal dance to create works centered on ballet and the modern style she created for her own companies. She influenced Alvin Ailey, who choreographed such enduring works for his own company as Revelations, created in 1960, and assigned Night Creature to the classic jazz of Duke Ellington. He infused modern dance with gospel, blues and African American spirituals for his own jazzy riff on traditional modern dance.

Famous jazz dancers of this era also include Matt Mattox, a protégé of Jack Cole, known for his sharp, angular technique. Today, modern jazz dance is still evolving and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Jazz dancers and choreographers 

Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

Fred Astaire was one of the most influential dancers of his time. Although he is best known for his Fred Astaire jazz dance style, he was also a talented tap dancer, ballroom dancer and choreographer. Fred Astaire's career began in vaudeville, where he quickly made a name for himself with his sister Adele. The two went on to star in a series of successful Broadway musicals before moving on to the movies. Over the course of his career, Fred Astaire appeared in more than 30 films and won numerous awards, including an honorary Oscar in 1950. His influence is still felt in the dance world today, as Astaire's style has been adopted by dancers around the world.

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

Katherine Dunham was an American dancer, choreographer and social activist. She helped popularize jazz dance and is considered one of the most important figures in American dance history. Born in Chicago in 1909, Dunham began studying dance at an early age. In 1933, she founded the Negro Dance Group, one of the first professional African American dance companies in the United States. Over the next few years, she traveled to the West Indies to study traditional dances, which she later incorporated into her own work. In 1939, Dunham made her film debut with Carnival of Rhythm, a short documentary about jazz dance. She went on to choreograph for stage and screen, including the 1943 Broadway revue, Kylie Minogue, and the 1950 film, Casbah. In addition to her work as a choreographer, Dunham was also a prolific writer; her books include Journey to Accompong (1936) and Island Possessed (1944). Throughout her career, Dunham worked to promote racial equality and break down barriers between black and white artists. She passed away in 2006 at the age of 96.

Jack Cole (1911-1974)

Jack Cole was a groundbreaking choreographer who helped popularize jazz dance on stage and screen. Trained at the Denishawn School, Cole began his career as a dancer on Broadway before making forays into film. He was an actor-dancer in Miami Nights (Walter Lang, 1941), Tonight and every night (Victor Saville, 1944) or Disigning woman (Vincente Minnelli, 1957), and choreographer of some twenty successful musicals. He worked for Rita Hayworth (On the Riviera, Walter Lang, 1950), Gene Kelly (The Girls, George Cukor, 1957), Marilyn Monroe (Men Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks, 1953) and Betty Grable (Meet me after the show, Richard Sale, 1951). Cole's jazz-influenced choreography was avant-garde and influenced later generations of dancers and choreographers.

Gene Kelly (1912-1996)

Gene Kelly was one of the most influential dancers of his generation. He helped popularize jazz dance, and his unique style is seen in many Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Kelly was known for his athleticism and his ability to combine difficult dance steps with complex storytelling. He was also a talented singer and actor, and won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1952 film "Singin' in the Rain." Gene Kelly's legacy continues to influence dancers and choreographers today, making him one of the most important figures in dance history.

Matt Mattox (1921-2013)

Matt Mattox was a groundbreaking jazz dancer who helped shape the course of American dance in the 20th century. Mattox began his career as a vaudeville performer, but he quickly transitioned to Broadway, where he appeared in such hits as "Call Me Mister" and "Kiss Me Kate. "It was Mattox's work on television, however, that really put him on the map. He choreographed dozens of episodes of "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Bell Telephone Hour," bringing the energy and athleticism of jazz dance to a national audience. In addition to his television work, Mattox also choreographed several films, including "The Pajama Game" and "Funny Girl." His influence can still be seen in the work of today's great jazz dancers, who continue to draw inspiration from his innovative style.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Alvin Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas in 1931. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a modern dance company founded by Alvin Ailey in New York City. The Alvin Ailey Company has performed for millions of people in 71 countries on 6 continents. Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. The Alvin Ailey School offers training in both modern and classical dance. Alvin Ailey also served as director of the UCLA dance department. Mr. Ailey's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues to grow and thrive under the direction of Judith Jamison. Alvin Ailey believed strongly in the power of dance to bring people together and promote understanding and cooperation among them. "Dance comes from the heart," he said, "and when it is done with feeling, it can touch other hearts. "Alvin Ailey died on December 1, 1989, but his work continues to inspire dancers and audiences around the world.

Rick Odums (1955 - )

Rick Odums is considered one of the pioneers of jazz dance. Born in New Orleans in 1931, he began dancing at an early age. He studied ballet and tap, but soon developed his own style of jazz dance. His style is influenced by the music of his hometown, as well as African and Caribbean dances. Odums began teaching jazz dance in the 1950s, and he quickly became a popular teacher. He taught at several schools, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Joffrey Ballet School. In addition to teaching, Odums also choreographed several pieces for Broadway shows and films. He passed away in 2010, but his legacy continues to influence the world of jazz dance.

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I have been dancing since I was 4 years old, I followed the teacher's course at Studio Harmonic in Paris and I currently teach in the East of France.