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7 key influences on the development of Theatre Jazz

Updated: Aug 28

theatre jazz dancers - four dancers in black and purple
Giordano Dance Chicago in Feelin' Good Sweet, choreographed by Ray Leeper. Photo by Gorman Cook Photography., CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In this post you'll discover 7 key influences on theatre jazz dance:

The range of theatre jazz influences

Theatre jazz is a vibrant and dynamic dance form that fuses of jazz technique and theatrical storytelling. It draws inspiration from a rich tapestry of influences, from the infectious rhythms of jazz music to the historical legacies of African and African-American dance, as well as the realms of vaudeville, modern dance, ballet, contemporary dance, and popular culture, theatre jazz thrives on the convergence of diverse artistic expressions. This post delves into the multifaceted influences that have shaped the evolution of theatre jazz, highlighting the interplay of various genres and their contributions to this captivating dance form.

1. Jazz music

The primary influence on theatre jazz is jazz music itself. The syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and musicality of jazz heavily shape the movement vocabulary and overall style of theatre jazz.

  • Syncopated rhythms: Jazz music's syncopated rhythms heavily influenced the choreography of theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate intricate footwork, dynamic accents, and unexpected pauses to mirror the rhythmic complexities found in jazz music, adding a sense of energy and liveliness to their performances.

  • Improvisation and musicality: Jazz music's emphasis on improvisation and musicality has greatly influenced the expressive qualities of theatre jazz dance. Dancers are encouraged to interpret and respond to the music in the moment, allowing for spontaneous movements, rhythmic variations, and personal artistic expression within their choreography.

  • Swing and swag: The swing feel and inherent "swag" of jazz music have left an indelible mark on theatre jazz dance. Dancers embrace the rhythmic groove and infectious energy of jazz music, infusing their movements with a sense of playfulness, swagger, and effortless cool, creating a captivating and engaging performance.

  • Call and response: Jazz music's call and response tradition has influenced the interactive dynamics within theatre jazz dance. Dancers engage in rhythmic exchanges, echoing and responding to musical cues, creating a dynamic dialogue between the music and movement, enhancing the connection between dancers, musicians, and the audience.

  • Emotional depth and expression: Jazz music's ability to evoke a wide range of emotions has influenced the emotional depth and expressiveness in theatre jazz dance. Dancers draw inspiration from the melodic phrasing, harmonic progressions, and lyrical content of jazz music, allowing them to convey a spectrum of emotions, from joy and exuberance to longing and introspection, through their movements.

2. African and African-American dance

Jazz dance has roots in African and African-American dance traditions, such as African tribal dances, social dances like the Charleston and Lindy Hop, and early forms of African-American vernacular dance. These influences can be seen in the use of polyrhythms, isolations, and expressive body movements in theatre jazz.

  • Rhythmic influences: African and African-American dance forms have heavily influenced the rhythmic elements of theatre jazz dance. The use of polyrhythms, syncopation, and intricate footwork derived from African dance traditions adds a vibrant and energetic quality to theatre jazz choreography.

  • Body isolation and undulations: African and African-American dance emphasize the isolation and articulation of different body parts. This influence can be seen in theatre jazz dance through the use of body undulations, isolations of the hips, shoulders, and torso, creating fluid and expressive movements that enhance the visual impact of the choreography.

  • Improvisation and individual expression: African and African-American dance traditions embrace improvisation as a means of personal expression. This aspect has influenced theatre jazz dance, allowing dancers to explore their own artistic interpretations and infuse their performances with spontaneity, creativity, and individual style.

  • Call and response: The call and response tradition prevalent in African and African-American music and dance has influenced the interactive dynamics within theatre jazz. Dancers engage in rhythmic exchanges and conversations, mirroring movements and responding to each other's actions, creating a sense of unity and connection between performers and between performers and the audience.

  • Cultural and historical influences: African and African-American dance carry deep cultural and historical significance. Theatre jazz dance draws inspiration from these traditions, incorporating elements such as storytelling, rituals, and symbolism that honor and celebrate African and African-American heritage, fostering cultural awareness and representation within the art form.

3. Vaudeville and musical theatre

Theatre jazz emerged alongside vaudeville and musical theater in the early 20th century. The high-energy, entertaining nature of vaudeville performances, as well as the choreographic styles of early Broadway musicals, had a significant impact on the development of theatre jazz. The jazz dance routines in musicals like "Chicago" and "A Chorus Line" exemplify this influence.

  • Theatrical showmanship: Influenced by vaudeville and musical theatre, theatre jazz dance incorporates energetic and dynamic movements, engaging facial expressions, and charismatic stage presence to captivate audiences and create a sense of theatricality.

  • High-energy choreography: Reflecting the fast-paced and exhilarating routines of vaudeville and musical theatre, theatre jazz dance showcases quick footwork, lively jumps, and energetic turns, demonstrating technical prowess and athleticism while maintaining a sense of excitement.

  • Narrative storytelling: Inspired by vaudeville and musical theatre, theatre jazz dance incorporates movement to convey characters, emotions, and narratives, drawing from the dramatic arcs and theatrical storytelling commonly found in these forms of entertainment.

  • Use of props and costumes: Theatre jazz dance embraces the tradition of vaudeville and musical theatre by incorporating props such as canes, hats, and fans into choreography, adding visual interest and enhancing the narrative elements. Additionally, flamboyant and elaborate costumes from these genres often find their way into theatre jazz performances, creating a visually stunning and captivating experience.

  • Humorous elements: In line with the humor found in vaudeville and musical theatre, theatre jazz dance incorporates comedic gestures, expressions, physical comedy, and comedic timing. Dancers use exaggerated movements, slapstick routines, and improvisational exchanges to deliver lighthearted and amusing moments that bring laughter and comedic relief to the performances.

4. Modern dance

Modern dance pioneers, such as Martha Graham and Lester Horton, experimented with incorporating jazz movements into their choreography. The fluidity, athleticism, and technical innovations of modern dance have been integrated into theatre jazz, adding depth and variety to its movement vocabulary.

  • Freedom of movement: Modern dance's emphasis on freedom and expression has influenced the movement vocabulary of theatre jazz dance. Theatre jazz dancers incorporate expansive, organic movements and use the full range of their bodies, breaking away from traditional constraints and allowing for more fluidity and individuality in their performances.

  • Contractions and release: Modern dance introduced the concept of contractions and release, which has influenced the dynamics and texture of theatre jazz dance. Dancers utilize the articulation of the spine, contracting and releasing different body parts to create moments of tension and release, adding depth and nuance to their movements.

  • Floorwork and contact improvisation: Modern dance's exploration of floorwork and contact improvisation has found its way into theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate elements of seamless transitions between standing and floor movements, as well as partnering and contact improvisation techniques, enhancing the versatility and interactive nature of their performances.

  • Expressive gesture and emotion: Modern dance's focus on using the body as a means of personal expression has influenced the emotive qualities of theatre jazz dance. Dancers draw upon modern dance techniques to convey emotions and tell stories through gestural movements, allowing for a deeper connection with the audience.

  • Contemporary musicality: Modern dance's evolving relationship with contemporary music has had an impact on theatre jazz dance. Theatre jazz dancers often explore a wide range of music genres, including contemporary and experimental compositions, adapting their movements to match the unique qualities and rhythms of these musical styles, expanding the versatility and adaptability of theatre jazz.

5. Ballet

Ballet techniques and principles have influenced theatre jazz, particularly in terms of body alignment, extension, and the use of turnout. Many theatre jazz dancers receive training in ballet to develop strength, control, and technique, which they then apply to jazz choreography.

  • Technical foundation: Ballet serves as a strong technical foundation for theatre jazz dance. Dancers trained in ballet possess a solid understanding of body alignment, turnout, balance, and control, which they seamlessly incorporate into their theatre jazz performances, enhancing their overall technique and execution.

  • Extension and line: Ballet's emphasis on elongated lines and extension has influenced the aesthetic of theatre jazz dance. Dancers trained in ballet strive for length, grace, and fluidity in their movements, showcasing beautiful lines and extensions that add visual appeal and elegance to their theatre jazz choreography.

  • Body control and precision: Ballet's focus on precision and body control translates seamlessly into theatre jazz dance. The intricate footwork, intricate turns, and precise arm and head positions found in ballet find their way into theatre jazz choreography, adding a level of technical accuracy and refinement to the movements.

  • Musicality and timing: Ballet dancers are trained to have a keen sense of musicality and timing, and this translates to theatre jazz dance as well. The ability to interpret and respond to musical nuances, accents, and phrasing allows theatre jazz dancers to synchronize their movements with the music, enhancing the overall performance and creating a seamless integration between movement and music.

  • Artistic expression: Ballet's emphasis on storytelling and expression has influenced the narrative aspects of theatre jazz dance. Ballet techniques, such as mime and pantomime, have found their way into theatre jazz choreography, allowing dancers to effectively convey emotions, narratives, and characters through their movements, adding depth and theatricality to their performances.

6. Contemporary dance

As contemporary dance evolved, it incorporated elements of jazz technique and style. Theatre jazz has also drawn inspiration from contemporary dance, incorporating elements of release, floor work, and fluid transitions between movements.

  • Fluidity and versatility: Contemporary dance's emphasis on fluidity and versatility has influenced the movement vocabulary of theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate seamless transitions, organic flow, and the use of the entire body to create a sense of fluidity and adaptability in their performances.

  • Physicality and extension: Contemporary dance's focus on expansive movements and extension has had an impact on the physicality of theatre jazz dance. Dancers showcase elongated lines, dynamic extensions, and use of space to create visually striking and impactful moments on stage.

  • Innovative choreographic approaches: Contemporary dance's exploration of new choreographic approaches and concepts has influenced the creative direction of theatre jazz dance. Choreographers draw inspiration from contemporary dance techniques, such as improvisation, collaborative processes, and interdisciplinary collaborations, pushing the boundaries of traditional theatre jazz choreography.

  • Expressive artistry: Contemporary dance's emphasis on individual artistry and self-expression has influenced the emotive qualities of theatre jazz dance. Dancers are encouraged to delve into their own unique interpretations, exploring personal narratives and emotions, adding depth and authenticity to their performances.

  • Fusion of styles: Contemporary dance's inclination towards fusion and experimentation has influenced the blending of styles within theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate elements from various dance forms, such as ballet, hip-hop, and lyrical, infusing their choreography with diverse movement qualities and stylistic nuances, creating a dynamic and eclectic dance vocabulary.

7. Popular culture and street dance

Theatre jazz has been influenced by popular culture and street dance forms. Elements of hip-hop, funk, street jazz, and other urban dance styles have found their way into the vocabulary of theatre jazz, reflecting the contemporary dance landscape and appealing to diverse audiences.

  • Urban aesthetics: Popular culture and street dance have brought urban aesthetics and influences to theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate elements such as street-style movements, urban fashion, and contemporary trends, infusing their performances with a fresh and modern appeal.

  • Hip-hop fusion: Popular culture and street dance's influence on hip-hop has made its way into theatre jazz dance, resulting in the fusion of hip-hop and jazz styles. Dancers incorporate hip-hop techniques, such as popping, locking, and breaking, into their choreography, adding a dynamic and urban edge to their performances.

  • Groove and musicality: Popular culture and street dance have emphasized the importance of groove and musicality in movement. Dancers in theatre jazz embrace these qualities, responding to the rhythms and beats of popular music genres, and infusing their choreography with a sense of infectious energy and rhythmic precision.

  • Street dance elements: Influences from street dance, such as krumping, waacking, and voguing, have found their way into theatre jazz dance. Dancers incorporate these expressive and stylistic elements, creating visually captivating moments and adding depth to their performances.

  • Social media and digital influence: The rise of social media and digital platforms has allowed for the rapid dissemination of popular culture and street dance trends. Dancers in theatre jazz often draw inspiration from viral dance challenges, online dance communities, and popular dance videos, incorporating these trends into their choreography and keeping their performances fresh and relevant.


It's important to note that the influences on theatre jazz can vary depending on the choreographer, the specific style being performed, and the time period in which it is created. Different choreographers and companies may prioritize certain influences more than others, resulting in a wide range of interpretations and styles within theatre jazz.

The relationship between jazz music and theatre jazz dance is one of profound inspiration and collaboration. The infectious rhythms, improvisational spirit, emotional depth, and musical sensitivity of jazz have shaped theatre jazz dance into a dynamic, expressive, and captivating art form. As dancers and choreographers continue to push the boundaries of this creative fusion, jazz music will undoubtedly remain an enduring muse, driving the evolution and innovation of theatre jazz. This enduring bond between jazz music and theatre jazz dance serves as a testament to the power of artistic interplay, bringing forth performances that ignite the senses and leave an indelible mark on the hearts of audiences.


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