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Jazz man: Gus Giordano can count the Jazz Dance World Congress, held this month in Phoenix, as one of his many jazz creations.

Gus Giordano can count the Jazz Dance World Congress, held this month in Phoenix, as one of his may jazz creations

It's hard to remember that there was jazz dance before Gus Giordano. Like no one else, he has developed a specific jazz movement vocabulary and style, written a definitive text, and codified what had been largely improvised into a specific technique. He has created not only a body of choreographed work to back it up but also a thirty-six-year-old concert jazz dance company that bears his name and is more heavily booked than ever before. Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago performs new and restaged works by Giordano and other talented choreographers, many of whom derive their dance heritage from his legacy. In 1924, when he was getting himself born in St. Louis, Missouri, jazz was only beginning to wend its way up from Dixie to northern cities, picking up some blues and ragtime along the way while remaining largely improvisational. Five-year-old August learned the shuffle, "The Shoeshiner's Drag," from a cousin on a visit to New Orleans. After that, he was always a dancer, studying with local and visiting teachers and learning dance, mostly ballet and theatrical dance, whenever and wherever he could (often performing on Mississippi riverboats).

In the 1920s dancers were moving to newly risque partner dance, traditional folk dances, vaudeville-style lines or song and dance acts, and showgirl parade walks. If The Jazz Singer, the first successful "talking picture," could bring recorded music to the local movie theater, could the golden age of dance production numbers be far behind? Thanks to the New Deal's Rural Electrification Project, the sound of jazz on radio or records could reach even the most remote corner of the U.S. Meanwhile, Duncan, Denishawn, Dunham, and full-blown modern dance were seen in concert. Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes (1936) gave jazz a big boost on Broadway, where Jack Cole was fusing ethnic styles with American swing and jazz rhythms.

Young August was watching, listening, and trying out styles for himself during this time. World War II intervened, and Giordano became a United States Marine after first trying to become a paratrooper. "I've never been much of a jumper, even to this day," he admits. His only scar from the war is the Marine tattoo on his right arm. But his time in the service earned him his college education on the G.I. Bill. Majoring in creative writing and minoring in dance, Giordano earned a B.A. degree from the University of Missouri; he also met and married his life and business partner, Peg, while there.

Between semesters, he was in New York City, auditioning with such dancers as Peter Gennaro and Buzz Miller and giving four shows a day, between films, at the Roxy. After graduation, Gus appeared on Broadway as a dancer in Paint Your Wagon, Wish You Were Here, and a revival of On the Town, plus an assortment of television variety shows. While working he studied with Katherine Dunham when she had her school in New York City. (He danced with other alums at the Circle of Dance awards 1992 tribute to Dunham in St. Louis.) He also credits Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais for their influence on his technique and choreography.

"In 1955, no dancer left a show," he recalls. "If you were in Oklahoma! and it ran nine years, you made that your career." Gus and Peg decided that New York City was not the best place to raise a family, however, after they had Patrick, their first child. When Gus learned that the Equity office was looking for someone to stage a film festival in Chicago, he applied and was accepted. Along with a house in Wilmette, the Giordanos bought a former bowling alley at 614 Davis Street, Evanston, Illinois, just blocks from Lake Michigan, where they opened the Gus Giordano Dance Center. Sixty-seven students signed up, and soon it was attracting dance students from nearby Northwestern University. Gus ran the school in his spare time while working as a producer for the Film Council of America. The Dance Center now registers about 1,400 students for ballet ("the alphabet of dance," according to Giordano), jazz, modern, tap, and ethnic classes and offers a special summer intensive and year-round scholarship program. In its struggling years, the school also taught tumbling and ballroom dancing.

The current staff are all Giordano-trained teachers. He drops in often but no longer teaches weekly classes. Much of the year he travels as a master teacher. He was National Dance Week spokesperson in 1997, and he is often an adjudicator for such festivals as the California region's 1998 American College Dance Festival--all the while serving as advisor to Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago.

Instead of buying advertising, Giordano initially drew attention to the school by performing in the Chicago area with his students. The present GGJDC earned its name and its status as a permanent company almost by a fluke in 1968. The Bolshoi Ballet was performing in Chicago and asked to see some jazz dance. Journalist Ann Barzel, knowing its work, recommended Giordano's company. The Bolshoi was so impressed they immediately issued an invitation to perform in the Soviet Union. The young company accepted, and changed its name to be more clearly identifiable. Dedicated to preserving, developing, and creating awareness of jazz dance as an indigenous American art form, the company has since performed and taught in much of the world and has a European season every year.

Along the way, Gus developed his jazz dance technique as his choreography and teaching style evolved, and he set it down in a text, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Class (Princeton, 1992), with both music and notes--a first for the field. It is a strong, earthy technique, with a coolly intense emphasis on plie and eye contact with the audience. "The energy comes from the earth and the power for movement from the gut," explains Giordano, "so the dancer must be grounded. The style looks as good on a man as on a woman, but because of the low plie and the strength needed in the quadriceps, men are still the nucleus of most pieces. Our dancers have to have ballet training but not look anorexic." Of course, there are the jazz hands and jazz walks, the explosions of rhythms, and the isolations and freeze frames, but principally "our jazz technique comes out of the earth with the modern dance influence."

"I try to find and show off the strengths of individual company members in the choreography after I find what they are capable of doing," Giordano continues. And the measure of that success can be seen in the number of former company dancers who now direct their own successful companies. Of their training he says, "My dancers must think during the barre, not exercise automatically. I vary it each time. Many teachers just do the same carefully choreographed warm-up over and over regardless of the setting or needs of the work that's coming. Some L.A. classes are a fashion show of boots and earrings; the dancers need to be seen, not sweat. My jazz classes are disciplined. I start with care of the shoes and feet. If the movement comes from the earth, you have to be able to feel it. Students can wear warm-ups at the beginning of the process, but must take them off so the teacher can see to make corrections.

"Ours is a repertory company, where eventually company members learn all roles. We actually have two companies with ten members each. The second company is younger and learning; they dance at many of our outreach performances. It is also brought in where the choreography requires more dancers. We tour extensively in Europe every year--bus-and-truck tours." Audiences there are ecstatic, welcoming jazz as a dance of the people, not of the opera palaces. It is accessible musically and visually. Audiences often clap along.

Because of his work with film and his experience on early television variety shows, Giordano was a pioneer in the use of videotape. As his company built a repertory of successful works, they were recorded and broadcast on Chicago television or over PBS. Several of these Giordano television shows won national awards. These archival videos are now available from Kultur (you can call it toll-free: 800 458-5887) and from Orion (847 866-9442).

"My satisfaction is in the creating process with dancers; it's very personal. I know I will never experience this again after the short weeks of rehearsal. As soon as performance begins and the work is set, I'm ready to move on while the dancers carry it forward. The creation is over for me," says the man whom Paul Galloway of the Chicago Tribune calls "one of the major architects of jazz dancing."

In August 1990, Giordano brought together for the first time renowned jazz dance pioneers, choreographers, administrators, teachers, and students at the First American Jazz Dance World Congress. Participants flew in from all over the world for the five-day event that was cosponsored by Susan Lee and the Department of Theater/Dance at Northwestern University. Master teachers present with Giordano were Matt Mattox, Luigi, Frank Hatchett, Joe Tremaine, Judi Missett (founder of Jazzercise), and surprise guest Earnest Morgan. This get-together of jazz dancers was positively euphoric. That remarkable success resulted in the Jazz Dance World Congress that was held again in Evanston in 1992 and 1994; Nagoya, Japan, in 1995; Washington, D.C., 1996; Weisbaden, Germany, in 1997; and will be held in Phoenix this month. Dates for future congresses extend well into the next century.

From the beginning, the owners of Leo's, the Chicago-based manufacturer of dance shoes and dancewear, have encouraged and showcased new talent by sponsoring an original choreography competition with cash prizes. Winners have included Mia Michaels [see page 581 and Billy Siegenfeld [see Dancescape, page 10].

"The 1998 Leo's Jazz Choreography Competition at the congress is the largest ever," reports Giordano. "This year there are twenty-three finalists. The adjudicators thought there was just too much good work to be considered to cut it down more than that. All final entries will be performed during the congress in Phoenix prior to final judging. The winning work will be seen at the August 11 gala concert in Symphony Hall.

"Lots of people get an idea and keep quiet about it for fear that talking about it might jinx it," explains Giordano. "My philosophy is just the opposite. I say it to everybody, then I'm obligated to make it so. It was that way with the Jazz, Dance Anthology. I told everybody for two years before that I was going to write it for the anniversary of America in 1976. Jazz is an indigenous American art form. The first printing was in red, white, and blue and sold thirty thousand copies worldwide, a huge number for a book on dance. Later we reprinted it in black-and-white, and I think it's in its third or fourth printing now.

"It was that way with the Congress, too. I had toured all over Europe and taught so much. I noticed that there were not too many festivals in the United States, especially in jazz and tap dance." That was in 1989. Now, of course, there are many summer festivals, and the competition for master teachers, sites that can accommodate a festival, and dancers who want to attend is much greater. But the Jazz Dance World Congress goes on because so many people have a stake in its continuing.

Peg Giordano's death in 1993 was a loss not only to her family and their dance school business, which she supervised, and the organization of the congress, but to more than two generations of dancers. Around Peg's kitchen table, young jazz dancers wrestled with their futures, revived or grieved over their relationships, toasted their triumphs, soaked their feet, and faced their illnesses. Most of all, she had always smoothed the way for Gus. Their daughter Nan, a master teacher in her own fight, is now artistic director of GGJDC and the congress and manages most of the outreach activities.

"What a blessing to see your child take over what you do in life," Giordano says. "It has been a very successful collaboration. We have been working on a jazz version of The Firebird for the congress in Phoenix. Nan only started dance as a teenager. We never pushed the children into dance. It's such a passionate, total-commitment decision, only you can make that kind of decision about your own lifestyle."

Nan is the only one of the Giordano children to make dance a career. Her sister, Amy, was in an accident when she was thirteen and had to have several knee operations. Younger brother Marc, whom Nan considered the best natural dancer, chose to become a published poet instead. Patrick, an attorney who works with alternative energy source companies, married Debbie Chalifoux, a company dancer and now a teacher at the Dance Center and at Northwestern University. And now there are the seven grandchildren. "I think they'll all dance," opines Gus. Certainly pulling together the Jazz Dance World Congress annually (in the U.S. on alternate years) is definitely a family affair, with everyone carrying a portion of the responsibility for organization and execution right along with the administrative staff.

This year also marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Gus Giordano Dance Center in Evanston, and the thirty-sixth anniversary of the founding of Giordano's concert jazz dance company. "Sometimes I think I've been successful because I've put in more time than anyone else," sighs Giordano. "But it's more than that. In a culture where jazz is expected to be trendy and edgy, hot or cool by turns, the role is, Show me something new today. Jazz dance doesn't come in an instant. It, like other performance dance styles, isn't improvisational. Its skills are developed slowly, incrementally, with discipline and joy, and sometimes pain."
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Author:Patrick, K.C.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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