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Vernacular Jazz: The Non-Technical Street Dance of the Early 20th Century

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

If you're looking for a dance style that's accessible to everyone and just plain fun, look no further than vernacular jazz. A non-technical form of dance, vernacular jazz is high energy, so it's a great workout, but you can adapt any movements to suit your level of fitness.


Vernacular jazz is one of many jazz dance styles we teach at Dragonfly Dance.


Origins of Vernacular Jazz


Vernacular jazz originated in the early 20th century in African American communities, and was popularized in Vaudeville and screen musicals. It is made up of lots of fun, quirky steps, such as the Cake Walk, the Shorty George, Falling off a log, Suzie Q, Tacky Annie, and camel walk, to name a few. Some of the more famous steps include the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.


Although some people have commented that it looks like tap dancing, it is much broader than tap dancing. Vernacular jazz is sometimes called “authentic jazz” to differentiate it from the modern jazz style that developed in the 1950s and was heavily influenced by ballet technique. It is quite different from the jazz dance style that is generally taught in dance studios around the world.


 

An example of Vernacular Jazz 'Jazz Roots 2015 - Saturday Night Show - Remy Kouakou Kouame and Skye Humphries', shared on Youtube by Eric Esquivel

 

Key Elements of Vernacular Jazz


Some of the key elements of vernacular jazz include individuality, rhythm, and music. Each dancer is different and adds their own flavor to the movements, giving it a strong improvisational element. Vernacular jazz features propulsive rhythms, and while you don’t have to all be doing the same movements, moving to the rhythm is paramount. Vernacular jazz is usually accompanied by jazz, swing or big band music.


History of Vernacular Jazz


Africans had to find ways to adapt to their new environments and lifestyle. But they also wanted to retain their native traditions. Dance was that way. In the end, the blending of African body movements, coupled with the European formal dances, produced a new form of dancing to create the Afro-American Vernacular.


Some of the pioneers of vernacular jazz include King Rastus Brown, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, James Barton, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, Al Minns, Leon James, and Cholly Atkins.


 

An example of Vernacular Jazz 'Jazz Roots 2015 - RTSF 2016 - Jitterbug Stroll with Ryan Francois, shared on Youtube by RockThatSwing

 

Vernacular Jazz at Dragonfly Dance


Our Monday night vernacular jazz class with Tracee is a continuation of the class that was so popular in our Summer Dance Program. You can expect to have a lot of fun, build stamina, and develop your own individual style as you learn the steps. The class is easy to follow once you get the idea, and personal variations/style are possible so it is good for all abilities/disabilities. In the class,


Our resident Vernacular Jazz aficionado, Tracee, will guide you through the quirky steps and propulsive rhythms that are the hallmark of vernacular jazz. You will dance to jazz, swing, and big band music, and learn many of the famous steps. You will also learn to add your own flavour to the movements, and get a great workout, adapting any movements to suit your level of fitness.


What are students are saying


Here's what some of our students who have been doing Tracee's classes have to say about the style and the class:


“I did Tracee's vernacular jazz classes during summer dance. Loved them! I found them very joyful. I love the jazz and swing music from the era for a start. The classes are great for building stamina while having a lot of fun and there's room to develop your own individual style as you learn the steps. It's great to have another quite different option to add to the mature classes I already love doing. Thanks for adding it to the timetable and thanks Tracee for being willing to continue it!” Marg Whelan

“The class was lots of fun. Loved the music. Easy to follow once I got the idea. Personal variations/style possible so good for all abilities/disabilities.” Evelyn Pain

“I really enjoyed the class, it was so much fun to learn this style of dance and Tracee is amazing!” Sue Gardiner

So, if you're looking for a fun and accessible dance style, consider giving vernacular jazz a try. At Dragonfly Dance, we have a 6pm Monday night class that's perfect for beginners and experienced dancers alike. Don't miss out on this opportunity to learn a dance style with a rich history and a lot of personality!


Check out the video below for a taster of our vernacular jazz class with Tracee.


Join waiting list to start Vernacular Jazz in our next intake of new students (every 12 weeks)


References for this article


Holla Dance (2016). 'Jazz Dance: The American Vernacular Dance'. Available at http://www.hollajazz.com/news/2017/2/21/jazz-dance-the-american-vernacular-dance. [Accessed 15 February 2023].


Heinila, H (2012). 'What is authentic jazz?' Available at https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/what-is-authentic-jazz-dance-4/. [Accessed 15 February 2023].


 

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