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WHAT IS this thing called jazz? Or, more pertinently, what is this thing called jazz dance? Jack Cole, one of the earliest practitioners of jazz dance as a theatrical form, was fond of calling it "urban folk dance," which certainly cute, even demonstrably accurate, but doesn't get us very far along the descriptive trail. Perhaps the neatest definition is in the 1977 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, which suggests it was "Developed--like jazz music--by the American Negroes, who took African dance techniques, based on polycentrism and the isolation of individually moving parts of the human body, and adapted them In the needs of their new social surroundings." We're getting there.

The word "jazz" found its general currency around World War I, but the idea of jazz and jazz dance started far earlier. Although it is all-American in origin, more significantly it is fundamentally black-American. In a word, it's African. And it is not just the roots that go back to the early days of slavery but, I think, a vital part of the actual dance forms.

Many of the social dances of the 1920s, including the Lindy-Hop and the Charleston, seem to have a correlation with African dances described by anthropologists like Geoffrey Gorer. And there is always--in both traditional African dance and contemporary jazz dance--an emphasis on rhythmic force, the use of the pelvis as controlling the back, which is never stiff or straight as in most European ballroom dance, and a competitiveness between partners that becomes contrapuntal to the all-compulsive rhythm.

WHEN THE slave ships brought their human cargo to America, the slaves were, according to the carefully researched Jazz Dance, by Marshall and Jean Stearns (DeCapo Press; 1994), forced to dance on board ship to keep them fit (and marketable!) during the long crossing. Such African dance still plays a vital part in contemporary jazz dance. It was these dances, developed and maintained during the slave years by such traditions as the famous dancing in Congo Square in New Orleans, that were permitted, even encouraged, by the slavemasters as a safety valve for the oppressed black population.

As a result, many aspects of African dance, particularly the use of the pelvis and knees, which differs markedly from Eurocentric dance, are still essential to jazz dance today. These are also partly differences in freedom of expression, especially in vernacular dance. There is a correct way to dance a waltz that is almost balletic in its strictness, but, to a large extent, in club dance anything goes and you just see where it gets you.

Yet the long and twisty choreographic progression from Congo Square to the mid-twentieth-century New York ballrooms of Roseland and the Peppermint Lounge is a journey with as many digressions as the Mississippi River. Very early on there were specific European interventions. Some slaves were sent to the Caribbean, where French, Hispanic, and even English forms became intermingled with the African heritage. My own introduction to African dance came through two remarkable dancer anthropologists: Katherine Dunham, when she brought her revue Caribbean Rhapsody to London in 1948, and Pearl Primus, who brought bet own company to London in 1956; in between I had seen some dance troupes originating from Africa itself.

FOR ME Dunham was particularly revealing because she demonstrated the Spanish and French-Creole influences on basically African dance forms. Her ballet L'Ag'ya had something in common with Giselle but employed a fighting, kicking, scrambling climax apparently based on a dance from Martinique. In contrast, Choro, a nineteenth-century Brazilian quadrille with, I suspect, a few interpolated ballet steps such as entrechats, was probably reminiscent of Louisiana's Creole society, here represented by the Mazouk, the Creole mazurka.

Intermingled and interbred from all these styles, attitudes, and mannerisms we find--quite simply--the essence of jazz dance. Yet I would hate to say who started teaching "jazz dance" as a distinctive style or discipline. Possibly it was Matt Mattox or Gus Giordano, or perhaps the lesser-known Jon Gregory, or the ballet-trained lap dancer Luigi (Eugene Louis Facciuto), who opened his Luigi Jazz Centre in 1951.

Significantly, among the art styles developed during the past century that are distinctive enough to be regarded as new art forms, the only two indigenous to the United Slates are modern dance (yes, I know about German expressionist dance [see "Under the Shadow of the Reich" on page 52], but let's get real) and that music called jazz. It should be a perfect match. And in some ways it was and is.

But one thing is lacking--improvisation, the virtual keystone to jazz music as an art. Improvisation and dance are tricky partners, although some postmodernists have tried it with modest success. But that jam session between great jazz dancers and great jazz musicians is still pie in the sky.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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