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History Of Jazz

By Cameron Cunningham, Executive and Artistic Director of Reverent Rhythms. 


Jazz dance originated in the 1800s when Africans were brought over to American on slave ships. The Africans moved in ways that were unique to their culture at the time, with grounded rhythm and isolation of the hips and other body parts. At the turn of the 20th century New Orleans began to develop Jazz as a music art form, jazz dance continued to develop with it.  Just like jazz music, jazz dance is heavily rooted in west african culture and is fused with american culture to create a unique and ever growing art form. The heart and soul of Jazz dance and music took place at social gatherings with a live band and a community coming together over a known social dance. This was at a time, during the 20’s, where women began to move more freely as an entire gender in social dancing. They wore shorter skirts, cut their hair shorter and were doing movements with their legs in the air. This fashion and feminist movement went hand in hand with the rise of the free flowing new groove of jazz dance and eventually gave way to broadway, burlesque and showgirl dancing. In the 1930s - 1960s jazz dance and music moved away from social gatherings and into the musical theater world, where famous choreographers, like Geourge Balanchine, Jack Cole, Jerome Robins, and Bob Fosse, began to adapt and develop the art form for performances. The foundations of African movement, with isolations and contractions, were uniquely and diversity developed by individual choreographers  (History of Jazz Dance | Jazz Dance, 2012). Jazz was codified to pertain to complex rhythms, syncopation, isolations and athletic movement. Jazz dance originated as social dancing for the sake of community among African Americans and was developed into social dances like the lindy hop, the charleston and others for all Americans as it became increasingly popular at parties. As jazz dance developed more in the theater, it continued on with more complex broadway choreography and lost many African cultural elements as well as shifted away from a social dance setting (History of Jazz Dance | Jazz Dance, 2012). Jazz music and dance became popular in Britain during world world two with the presence of american soldiers (A History of Jazz. 2010). What you typically see today as jazz dance is a fusion of the rich history of jazz dance with commercial dance, hip hop, contemporary ballet and modern. 

Major Influences in Jazz Dance:

Cab Calloway (A History of Jazz, 2010) well known Jazz musician at the Cotton Club. When the Cotton Club closed, Calloway and his band went on tour throughout the United States. Duke Ellington (A History of Jazz, 2010) well known Jazz musician at the Cotton Club. Benny Goodman (A History of Jazz, 2010) used, for the first time, black and white musicians in the same band. Jack Cole (1911 - 1974) is known as the father of Jazz Dance Technique and Theater Dance. He was the first dancer to combine elements of jazz and modern dance as well as the first to formalize a theatrical jazz technique (History of Jazz Dance, 2018). Katherine Dunham (1909 - 2006) was the founder of the first major modern black dance company in America. She is credited with inventing the technique of rhythmic isolationism which is primarily used in jazz dance to this day (History of Jazz Dance, 2018). Bob Fosse (1927 - 1987) is considered to be the most impactful choreographer of jazz dance history. Fosse combined the elegance of jazz and the attitude of burlesque dancing in his complex choreography. His choreography is a mark of the transition between Jazz and Modern dance. He is most well known for his choreography in the musical Chicago (History of Jazz Dance, 2018).

Video Resources:

The History of African-American Social Dance:


“Why do we dance? African-American social dances started as a way for enslaved Africans to keep cultural traditions alive and retain a sense of inner freedom. They remain an affirmation of identity and independence. In this electric demonstration, packed with live performances, choreographer, educator and TED Fellow Camille A. Brown explores what happens when communities let loose and express themselves by dancing together.”

How Banning the African Drum Gave Birth to American Music


“This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. How can we understand a culture if its very means of communication have been banned? Chris Johnson examines the role of the drum in African American Culture and American History.” (6:32)


History of Jazz Dance | Jazz Dance

History of Jazz Dance


Jazz Dance History


Different Styles of Jazz Resources:


Traditional Jazz  Dance Videos:



History of Jazz Dance | Jazz Dance. 24 July 2012,

History of Jazz Dance. 10 June 2018,

A History of Jazz. 16 Dec. 2010,

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