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Theatre Jazz Dance: evolution from street dance to centre stage

Updated: Nov 16, 2023



theatre jazz - three dancers in sparkly dresses with black hats
Dragonfly Dancers dressed for theatre jazz.

Theatre jazz is a style of dance that you see in musical theatre, as well as on film musicals. It is a high energy, entertaining dance form that, at it's core, is a lot of fun. It captivates audiences with its humour, infectious rhythms, high energy movements, and story telling capacity. Born from the rich cultural melting pot of jazz music and dance, theatre jazz has undergone a remarkable journey, transforming from a street dance style to a prominent and cherished component of stage performances. In this blog post, we'll explore the development and evolution of theatre jazz, tracing its origins and highlighting the key milestones that have shaped its journey.


Origins of theatre jazz in street dance


Jazz, often hailed as America's greatest art form, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily as a musical style rooted in African American communities. Drawing inspiration from African rhythms, spirituals, and blues, jazz music soon found its way onto the streets, becoming an integral part of the vibrant and diverse cultural scene of cities like New Orleans and Chicago. As the music evolved, so did the dance forms associated with it, giving birth to what would later be known as jazz dance.


The rise of jazz dance


Jazz dance, with its infectious energy and syncopated movements, quickly gained popularity as a social dance style in the early 20th century. Initially, it thrived in dance halls, clubs, and speakeasies, where dancers, both professional and amateur, would gather to express themselves to the lively sounds of jazz music. The dance form incorporated elements of African tribal dances, European partner dances, and various vernacular forms prevalent at the time.


From street to stage


The transition of jazz dance from the streets to the stage was a gradual process that began in the 1920s. It was during this period that theatrical productions, such as musical revues and vaudeville shows, started incorporating jazz-inspired dance numbers into their performances. Pioneers like Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers showcased their dynamic jazz-infused routines, captivating audiences with their unparalleled skill and charisma.


Josephine Baker (1927)



The Nicholas Brothers: Jumping Jive with Cab Calloway. An excerpt from the film Stormy Weather.


The advent of Broadway musicals in the 1930s further solidified the presence of jazz dance in the theatre world. Choreographers like Agnes de Mille, Jack Cole, and Bob Fosse played instrumental roles in integrating jazz dance into narrative-driven productions. Bob Fosse, in particular, revolutionized the genre with his distinct style characterized by isolations, angular movements, and iconic jazz hands. His choreography in shows like "Chicago" and "Sweet Charity" left an indelible mark on the world of theatre jazz.


Agnes de Mille choreography from Carousel



Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in 'Who's Got the Pain?' from 'Damn Yankees'


'Happy Ending' on for 'On the riviera finale' by Jack Cole

Evolution and contemporary significance of theatre jazz


Over the decades, theatre jazz has continued to evolve and adapt, drawing inspiration from other dance styles and cultural influences. Jazz dance techniques, including isolations, kicks, turns, and leaps, have become fundamental components of many musical theatre productions. Contemporary choreographers, such as Susan Stroman and Andy Blankenbuehler, have pushed the boundaries of theatre jazz, infusing it with elements of hip-hop, contemporary dance, and even ballet, creating a dynamic fusion of styles that captivates modern audiences.


'T'aint nobody's biz-ness if I do', choreographed by Susan Stroman from 'Bullets over Broadway'.


Theatre jazz serves as a powerful storytelling tool, allowing choreographers to express emotions, enhance character development, and create visually stunning sequences. Its infectious energy, technical prowess, and ability to seamlessly blend with other dance forms have solidified its place as an essential component of musical theatre productions worldwide.


Choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler for 'In The Heights'


Diversity and inclusion


Theatre jazz has played a vital role in breaking down barriers and promoting diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. From its early days as an African American cultural expression to its present-day presence on stages worldwide, theatre jazz has provided a platform for dancers of all backgrounds to showcase their talents, tell their stories, and challenge societal norms. It has become a medium through which artists can celebrate their unique identities and create a sense of unity and understanding among diverse audiences.


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In conclusion, the development and evolution of theatre jazz from a form of street dance to an integral part of theatre is a testament to the power of artistic fusion and innovation. Born out of the vibrant jazz music and dance scenes, theatre jazz has grown into a dynamic and influential art form that captivates audiences with its energy, creativity, and storytelling prowess. With each passing year, theatre jazz continues to evolve, embracing new influences, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible on stage.


 

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