The state of jazz

August 31, 2008

When you think of “jazz dance,” what comes to mind? The black-stockinged legs, splayed fingers and tilted hats of the
Chicago cast? Or is it that tried-and-true pas de bourrée, kick-ball-change, single/double/triple pirouette combo you do every week in class?

Although jazz dance’s roots lie in African American dance and music of the early 1900s, the iconic style we now know as “classical jazz” hit its stride in the middle of the 20th century, in the work of choreographers and teachers like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse and Luigi. Their styles still shape your typical jazz class today, but in the past few decades, “jazz” has been subdivided into a range of movement styles—musical theater jazz, lyrical jazz, contemporary jazz, Latin jazz and African jazz, to name just a few. So is classical jazz dance still current, or is it slowly becoming retro—or even obsolete?
DS spoke to a variety of jazz teachers and performers to get their thoughts on jazz’s past, present and future.

Spotlight on Style

“Jazz dance changes just like fashion, with each year and season,” says Dale Lam, artistic director of Columbia City Jazz Dance Company in Columbia, SC. “My analogy is, it’s just like America; it’s a melting pot of different styles.”

So what connects all the forms and makes them all “jazz”? The main thing to keep in mind is that the hallmarks of classical jazz still course through the variety of jazz-based genres out there. When you see syncopation, long lines, inverted limbs, forced-arch relevés and isolations, no matter the style, you’re looking at classical jazz’s lineage in action.

Classical jazz itself is perhaps easiest to spot these days in musical theater choreography—think Chicago, or more recent work by Rob Ashford or Andy Blankenbuehler. One hallmark of the traditional Broadway style is that the choreography helps to advance the story. “That’s what I fell in love with,” says dancer and teacher Jessica Lee Goldyn, who played Val in the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Goldyn started her training in fluid, Luigi-influenced jazz around age 7, and discovered musical theater–style jazz at 10. “I trained in the Fosse style, and I love its sharpness and precision.”

In recent years, contemporary (a style helmed by choreographers like Mia Michaels and concert companies like CCJDC and River North Chicago Dance Company) has come to the forefront of the scene. In this style, “there’s a strong influence of modern dance,” says Point Park University Dance Chair Susan Stowe. “It’s much more weighted and grounded, but still has some classical jazz influences.”

“[It’s not only] on TV,” says Tiffany van der Merwe, a jazz teacher at Oklahoma City University. “It’s circulating through the competitions. Contemporary synthesizes modern with ballet, and takes the isolations and contractions of jazz and puts them all together.”

And modern isn’t the only genre that’s crossed over into jazz: “Recently we’ve seen hip hop take a very firm stand in the jazz dance world,” van der Merwe says. “It has influenced jazz in the way that it focuses on rhythm.” (For an idea of jazz/hip-hop fusion, look no further than music videos by artists like Usher, Rihanna and Beyoncé—think hip hop with more classical technique and smoother edges.)

So in a dance world obsessed with fusion, is there still one style that can be called “jazz”? Mia Michaels doesn’t think so. “I personally think that ‘jazz’ is moving into a thing of the past,” she says. “I feel like the style has evolved. If you see a straight jazz piece, it’s considered dated. Mandy Moore did a ‘jazz’ piece for ‘SYTYCD’ in season three, and it was supposedly ’80s. It was a great piece, but you’re looking at a time period.”

Training with Technique

Today’s jazz technique classes keep different styles in mind and give dancers a good foundation for what van der Merwe calls jazz’s “eclectic feeling.” Most jazz teachers agree that a strong center, flexibility and clean lines are crucial. Jazz classes typically start with a warm-up that includes elements of both ballet (pliés, tendus, développés) and classical jazz (isolations, parallel positions, core-strengthening exercises). Though individual teachers’ tastes and styles may differ, the common threads in jazz—rhythm, strength and quality of execution—still shape us today.

But jazz teachers acknowledge that many students have become less interested in the technique and historical background of jazz, and more interested in learning cool new choreography and eye-popping tricks. “I see students come in their freshman year at OCU, and they struggle with the idea of jazz having its very own mindful technique,” explains van der Merwe. “I would ask young dancers, ‘Do you feel jazz warrants the same amount of skill and technique that ballet does?’ I don’t know that many dancers would subtract their ballet barre from their ballet class, because they recognize that it’s important. But often young jazz dancers will subtract their jazz center technique work from their class to learn some neat choreography, because they feel that jazz is choreography more than technique.”

“The challenge,” says Jo Rowan, chair of Oklahoma City University’s Dance Department, “is to see that people don’t just put their dollar down to learn that 15-minute warm-up and then some combination or a dance, but that they also have a structured technique that they can base their future employment on.”

To do that, it’s vital to incorporate both technique and fun choreography. Goldyn, who teaches jazz at the Worth-Tyrrell Studios in Morristown, NJ, where she studied as a child, includes a lot of repertory in her class—for example, sections from well-known shows like Sweet Charity. But, she says, “I also like to warm them up and give them the technique that I learned from Luigi-style jazz.” (Think smooth stretching, isolations and lots of épaulement.)

Looking to the Future

In all dance today—and especially in jazz—versatility is key. On Broadway, for example, fewer people are being hired to do more work onstage, which means you have to really be able to do it all. “You have to come in with a good attitude, pick up movement quickly, look good and be reliable, besides being able to sing and act,” Rowan says. “You have to be able to wear the choreographer’s clothing.” And choreographers are continuing to push the boundaries of what kinds of movement can be seen on a musical theater stage. In the Heights, 2008 Tony Award–winner for Best Musical, features Latin styles and hip hop, on top of lots of classical jazz; recent Broadway seasons have also included everything from acrobatics to Irish step dance to roller-skating.

Having a multitude of styles under your belt will make you not only a better jazz dancer, but also a better dancer as a whole. “Travis Wall has said—and I agree with him—if a dancer can do beautiful ballet, and can do great hip hop, they can pretty much do anything in between,” Lam says. So slip on your jazz oxfords, sneakers, character heels or Dance Paws and get to class. Maybe you can be at the helm of jazz dance’s next evolution in style.


Lea Marshall is a freelance writer based in Richmond, VA. She is producer/assistant professor at VCU Dance, and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company.


Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Fox