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Jazz ExchangeDance and Jazz
Dance and Jazz Couples Dancing at Savoy Ballroom NYC, 1930's
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Dance and Jazz

by Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and saxophonist

Audio Feature James Lincoln Collier, writer
On dancing as a challenge to Victorian morality
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Castle House Rag

Music in general and jazz specifically both have strong links to the dance. One of the most influential elements of African culture was its polyrhythmic nature, which found expression in dance. Certainly, this is responsible for a great deal of what we think of as the vernacular American dance style in all of its myriad extensions. Long before the early 20th century, when jazz evolved, the various dance steps that had originated in and around the plantation set the modes of expression for whites who imitated the slave's moves, blithely unaware of the extent of parody in those dances.

Ragtime, with its dotted rhythms and new polyrhythmic syncopations made it possible for dancers to begin to evade the stress that had heretofore been placed on the downbeat. This eventually led to the even 4/4 swing of later dance styles, where dancers were free to stress whichever part of the musical phrase they desired. Dancing was the only social medium through which the men and women were allowed to touch, and the early 20th century saw a gradual breakdown of the various traditions that had kept them, up to that point, physically apart while dancing together. There was a direct link between the musical and dance styles, and what they represented in moral terms. Things came to a crisis in the early 1910s when the "animal" dances gained popularity. The first to catch on was the Turkey Trot, in which the dancers pumped their arms in imitation of the aroused fowl. Some of the other variants — the Bunny Hug, for example — let the participants wriggle and shake in a way that was quite daring for the time. Naturally, this led to indignation in the press and on the pulpit, which only made the dances more popular. It was in an effort to "tame" this genre that Vernon and Irene Castle established themselves in 1914 and created the Castle Walk. James Reese Europe, already a prominent black New York bandleader/conductor, became the Castle's musical director. They also hired composer Ford Dabney, and between the two of them, they created the Castle's musical style.

Audio Feature Professor Gerald Early
On the middle class reaction to black dance styles
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

The Charleston, composed by James P. Johnson, created a furor in 1923 and remains the dance most readily associated with the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Once again, it was the specific syncopation of the music — in this case anticipating the downbeats — that made the dance as visually provocative as the music itself. What separated Johnson from the great majority of his peers was his desire to combine not only ragtime and the European classics, but also to incorporate the "shout" dances he had witnessed as a child. At that time (and to some degree, to this day), virtually every African-American community, no matter its location, had a direct link to its Southern heritage. In his native New Jersey, Johnson heard native Virginians sing and dance in a way that made an indelible impression on him. The result was a rhythmic dynamism that later became known as "swing," and was the edifice on which Louis Armstrong built his radical transformations. It was also further proof to the public at large that so much of popular entertainment came directly from the Negro idioms.

Dancers at the Savoy
Dancers at the Savoy
Image courtesy of Charles Peterson

The most innovative and influential jazz dance to emerge in the mid-20s was the Lindy Hop (named after Charles Lindbergh's famous Trans-Atlantic flight), created largely by George "Shorty" Snowden, a favorite at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. The dancer and pioneer jazz critic Roger Pryor Dodge (who choreographed and danced in several collaborations with the Ellington trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley), wrote years later about what the Lindy Hop represented:

The Lindy Hop is the only dance which has both cross-rhythms and more than two time values. Besides the steps which are synchronized with the musical phrases in the Lindy, there are steps which cross the rhythm of the music in the same fashion as polyrhythms in music. Whereas many of the cross-rhythms possible in the Fox-Trot are due to the aimless meandering of the dancers, in the Lindy the presence of cross-rhythms was a matter of precise steps...

With its many highly integrated steps — a necessity for a "led" couple dancing with break-away — we have a popular dance on which many variants have been grafted, such as style deviation of the jitterbugs, the detached attitude conjured by bop music in the Apple Jack, or the rock 'n roll dance that has been sweeping the country.

Audio Feature Frankie Manning, dancer
The evolution of the Lindy Hop
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Some of the most significant extensions of the Lindy were made in the mid-1930s by dancers including Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, spurring on a whole chain of national dance crazes. You can read Ken Burns' interview with Manning and Miller to get an eyewitness account of dancing at the Savoy.

Two dancers of a slightly earlier vintage who Dodge singles out as past masters were Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker (who could make his entire body vibrate like jelly in perfect concord with the rhythm) and Ananias Berry of the Berry Brothers, known for the sheer bravado and swing of his strutting dance done to Papa De Da Da.

Mission Beach Dance Hall, San Diego, 1941
Mission Beach Dance Hall, San Diego, 1941
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the early 1940s, there was already a division between the jazz dancers whose roots were in the theaters and ballrooms of black America, and a more self-consciously theatrical, more stylized and less spontaneous style epitomized by Katherine Dunham's dance company. The latter is why many think of Bob Fosse and innumerable Broadway shows when they think of a jazz dance. By the late 1940s, a number of factors — many based in reaction to the complexity of the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and the emergence of what became known as rhythm and blues — eradicated the functional connection between jazz and dance. The tap dancers Baby Laurence and Teddy Hale managed to survive and address the new jazz sounds, but they were never able to find a public like their predecessors had.

In the 1980s, jazz dance had a revival on Broadway with the hit shows Ain't Misbehavin' and Black and Blue. This dovetailed nicely into the so-called Swing revival of the 90s, while dealing primarily with the surface elements of the music, and brought about a renaissance of sorts of the Lindy and its variants. But the schism opened in the 1940s between the contemporary sounds of jazz and an engaged and terpsichorean public has yet to be breached. It is worth noting that until recently, all of jazz's greatest musicians experienced the magical conjunction of jazz and dance, and it is manifestly audible in the dancing rhythms that characterize their music. As the music gradually evolved out of the dance halls that spawned it and moved more and more into the rarified precincts of the concert hall, one of the loveliest off-shoots of the music's roots was lost. The give and take between a jazz band and a grooving mass of dancers was one of the 20th century's great glories. In the last couple of years, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has been touring the world playing music on the highest level for both listening and dancing, highlighting the proposition that these two choices are not mutually exclusive.