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The congressional record.

This year's Jazz Dance World Congress, held in Evanston, Illinois, from August 20 through 24, showed some solid improvements on the 1992 edition. For one thing, the evening performances were generally on a higher level; not every presentation was enough to make you forget Fred and Ginger or Talley Beatty's Phoebe Snow, but the choreography was solidly professional and there were no embarrassments this time around.

The competitive event, which was open to professional choreographers this year, also gained some ground. At least American choreographers didn't suffer the humiliation of seeing two of the three prizes go to competitors from other countries. (It's wonderful that Europe and Asia have embraced jazz so intensely, but we invented it; being a jealous lover isn't always bad.) That event, for which I was one of the adjudicators, did raise a serious question, though: Where's the jazz in jazz dance?

The gold Leo Award (named for its sponsor, Leo's Dancewear, Inc./Chicago) went to Billy Siegenfeld, professor at Northwestern University, which cosponsors the congress with Gus Giordano, and artistic director of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. His piece was the last of the entries to be shown, and when it hit the stage after four days of competition; we three adjudicators glanced at one another with eyes that said, quite clearly, "Thank goodness--jazz!"

Not that a lot of the other dances entered weren't solid pieces of work, but an amazing number of them looked more like modem dance than like jazz dance. That's not surprising, since they weren't choreographed to jazz music. A lot of teachers and choreographers at the congress told me how important and informative they find this column; that they post it on the bulletin boards at their schools, and that it helps further the cause of jazz dance. Yet somebody is forgetting one of the first points the column ever made.

It's All in the Music

I began by asking: "What, exactly, is jazz dance?" The answers that came back--from artists such as Donald McKayle--explained that jazz dance starts with jazz music and that it involves steps derived from the vernacular. (Derived is a key word; at the Congress Frank Hatchett was tossing ballet beats into his classroom combinations, and students constantly were being told, "Yes, you have to study ballet." Still, jazz music and a sense of the movements it has inspired are essential elements of jazz choreography. If they are lost, jazz dancing is deprived of its identity.

The conference worked to establish that identity not only with five evenings of performances by professional companies, but by giving aspiring dancers the chance to study with master teachers. Chuck Davis conducted classes in African dance, which should have helped the largely white student body understand where the seeds of jazz originated. Hatchett again demonstrated that vernacular steps have to be combined with sound technique before they can be transferred from the street to the stage. Joe Tremaine gave the kids a taste of his West Coast funky style, and Patti Obey and Giordano himself taught what has to be called classical jazz.

The kids worked. They worked hard, and it's to be hoped that they took some lessons home with them, but it's to be hoped even more that the dance teachers who came with their students got the message, too. The level of classroom work seemed somewhat higher than it was two years back, but we still have a long way to go.

Technique, Technique, Technique

Davis--whose studies have gone far beyond his specialty of authentic African dance and culture--remarked that if he'd stopped to give corrections every time they were needed, he'd never have completed a class in the allotted ninety minutes. Hatchett sometimes just shook his head sadly, wondering why kids had never learned to count. And when Obey began her smooth, rigorous warmup--which, she kept saying, isn't nearly as complex as the one Matt Mattox gives--some of the students wore expressions that clearly meant, "She wants us to do what?"

She wants you to dance, kids; that's what. She wants you to form a technique, to train your bodies and your minds so that when the time comes to perform, you have an instrument that will do the job. Yes, you have to take ballet. You have to learn the basics, and then you have to expand into the definite techniques required by various styles of jazz dancing. If your teacher is letting you get away with less, it's time to switch teachers, whether you're ever going to dance professionally or not. The discipline, the concentration, and the physical prowess required to develop a true technique are going to help you survive and triumph in any field you choose.

Another advance made by the Jazz Dance World Congress was the open acknowledgment that not every student there was destined to be a dancer. Morning panels and seminars gave the youngsters opportunities to learn about careers in dance besides the most obvious one-careers in physical therapy, in management, in presentation, and in teaching. There was a seminar on choosing a college dance program, there were demonstrations of Pilates-based and Feldenkrais techniques, and Judith Scott gave a warm-up stretch class every morning to tune bodies for the remainder of the day.

The next advance will be geographical: the 1995 congress is to be held in August in Nagoya, Japan, home of the Masashi Action Machine, a jazz-dance company that uses fans, masks, and ninjitsu moves in a wonderfully theatrical fashion. How do you say jazz hand in Japanese?
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Title Annotation:1994 Jazz Dance World Congress
Author:Mazo, Joseph H.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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