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Uncovering Jazz Elements in the Work of Contemporary Choreographers
Dance of the African Diaspora

Uncovering Jazz Elements in the Work of Contemporary Choreographers

The elements of jazz are embedded in the fabric of American culture. This essay explores the jazz elements found in the work of contemporary dance artists of the African Diaspora.


By Melanie George
Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group in "Moses(es)," 2014. Photo by Jamie Kraus.

Introduction

Jazz dance is beholden to its time, propelled forward by new themes, cadences, and ways of organizing the body. No other dance form is so steeped in reimaging its aesthetic again and again during its relatively short lifespan. Sometimes leading the change, at other times it follows; jazz dance is always reflecting the sociocultural leanings of the day. The elements of jazz are West African in origin. From the early forms of vernacular jazz to the intersection of authentic jazz with Eurocentric classicism through the mid-to-late 20th century, some combination of the following elements appear in choreographed and improvised jazz dance performance:

  • Groundedness (lowered center of gravity and connection to the earth)
  • Inclined and articulated torso
  • Bent limbs
  • Isolations and Polycentricism
  • Syncopation and Polyrhythm
  • Musicality
  • Dynamism
  • Improvisation
  • Call and response
  • Presentational performance attitude
  • A fluid exchange between the individual and the group

With the advent of fusion-forms in the 1980s, and ascendance of hip hop as America’s dominant vernacular-dance style, fewer contemporary dancers claim jazz as the form in which they are working than in years past. However, elements of “jazziness” can be found in the work of contemporary dance-makers, most notably in those creating work within the African Diaspora. Often attributed exclusively to an innate African-ness, the qualities of jazz are equally American. The distinct use of weight and acceleration in relation to rhythm and musical accompaniment are a direct result of the sensibilities of Black Americans, a double consciousness of African influence filtered through American survival. It is inaccurate to frame it as purely African, but to ignore the clear lineage to Africa is not only disingenuous, it is incomplete.

In the examination of the visibility of jazz dance, it is useful to identify where jazz appears, as whole or part. In this essay, a distinction is being made between jazz dance and dance which is “jazzy.” Contemporary choreographers working in jazz dance or its sister form tap, can be easily aligned with one of the many distinct styles from the family tree of jazz dance.

For a deeper dive into the family tree of jazz, read Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver.

From authentic jazz to Latin Jazz, theatrical jazz to funk to rhythm-generated jazz, there are clear indicators among the many styles, through movement vocabulary, accompaniment, and design, that assert jazz dance as the primary form in choreography. Dance that is jazzy is more opaque and ephemeral. To the non-discerning eye, it may present as modern dance or fusions of multiple dance forms. It may have more in common with the presentation of contemporary or street dance. However, the elements of jazz, which pre-date the aforementioned forms, are present below the surface. Though the jazz dance elements may be diffuse, they are no less potent in application. In dance that is jazzy, whether in social environments or formalized training, we see the residue of the pervasive influence of jazz on African-American dancers of the mid-to late 20th century.

Dianne McIntyre and Lula Washington

Dianne McIntyre and Lula Washington are contemporaries and pivotal figures in the development of Black concert dance. Though they developed their aesthetics on opposite coasts, both artists have choreographic histories steeped in African influences and the Black American experience. McIntyre is noted for her extensive work with jazz musicians, blending West African dance, modern dance, and African American social dance into her movement vocabulary. Dance scholar Veta Goler notes of McIntyre’s dance company, Sounds in Motion (1972-1988), “the dancers function as musicians in a jazz group…maintaining their individual voices while they support each other.Jacob’s Pillow Archives, Moving Image Number 818, “Dancing the Music Lecture Series: Sounds in Motion”In her choreography for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Too Much Love (1996), she brings these elements together with the accompaniment of a live jazz ensemble.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Dianne McIntyre's Too Much Love, 1996
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Lula Washington also blends dance genres, but emphasizes the influence of West African and Haitian dance in in her work. Like McIntyre, she uses live jazz accompaniment in Dances for McCoy (2006), set to the music of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Of all the works referenced in this essay, Washington’s choreography presents the most overtly West African movement. Like a musician weaving a jazz standard into a bebop solo, the dancers quote movement from American vernacular jazz while executing classical jazz turns and leaps, but the West African and Haitian vocabulary is primary in the work. This gumbo of movement gives the piece a sense of endless spontaneity within the set choreography.

Lula Washington Dance Theater in Washington's Dances for McCoy, 2006
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It would be overly simple to assume the use of live jazz music equates these works with jazz dance. Accompaniment can illuminate choreography, but it does not define it. The choreography in these pieces is in dialogue with the music. McIntyre’s dancers are alternately impulsive and laid back, slashing through the space while sinking into the groove. Washington’s soloists vibrate with propulsive energy, across the stage, through the air, and towards the earth. In both works we see a shared jazziness that prizes rhythm, swinging phrases, a mix of codified dance vocabulary with pedestrian movement, and a dynamic relationship between community and individuality simultaneously.

Urban Bush Women

As John Perpener notes in his essay on Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, her roots are in jazz music and its accompanying dances. Zollar’s mother was a jazz musician, and she grew up surrounded by an extensive jazz record collection. Her move from the South to New York City led her to working with Dianne McIntyre, a kindred soul in the pairing of jazz music with dance. In her creative process, jazz sensibilities are both imbedded, through multiple contributors shaping a work, and embodied in her movement signatures. The physical elements of jazz have always been present in the movement vocabulary of Urban Bush Women, from the agile use of the pelvis in Batty Moves (1995) to employing the lindy hop and the shim sham in Scat (2018). Co-choreographed with Co-Artistic Director Samantha Speis, and inspired by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s seminal work A Love Supreme, Walking With ‘Trane (2015) embraces the musical principles of jazz by engaging in what Zollar calls the “physical transcription” of Coltrane’s solos, most notably from his 1959 album Giant Steps. The primacy of a physical relationship to the music is inherently jazzy and the movement is jazzy because it originates from the phrasing of the music.

Urban Bush Women in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Samantha Speis's Walking With 'Trane, 2019
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Reggie Wilson

Reggie Wilson’s source material for his 2013 work Moses(es) originates from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, Wilson’s travels to Israel and Egypt, and the many representations of Moses in text and imagery throughout history. What developed is an evening-length work that touches on African, Caribbean, and Southern Black traditions, and meditates on migration, eldership, and monotheism. It moves between worlds—Africa and Egypt, Christianity and Post-Modernism. At the mid-point the tone shifts, the music pulses, and we are transported to multiple coexisting worlds.

Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group in Wilson's Moses(es), 2014
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Like the McIntyre and Washington works, Wilson’s Moses(es) is not beholden to an individual dance genre. Instead of blending dance forms, he is placing them alongside each other for our consideration. Dances of West Africa and Jamaica coexist with contemporary dance, house music, and allusions to vogueing. It is a moment out of time in the work, simultaneously here and there, past and present. The purposely presentational attitude and frontal focus by the dancers is at home in several folkloric dance traditions, and also seated firmly in jazz.

Conclusion

In 2000, for his monthly column for Dance Magazine, dance critic Clive Barnes posed the question, Who’s Jazzy Now?Barnes, Clive. “Who’s Jazzy Now?” Dance Magazine, August 2000, 90. In this editorial on the state of jazz dance, he defines and chronicles the history of jazz dance and its leading figures, commenting “the influence of dance, like the influence of jazz itself is so widespread that it is sometimes impossible to detect, let alone pin down.” This article reflects the oncoming dominance of hip hop as popular entertainment, and a more recent, burgeoning narrative in dance journalism that jazz dance is on the decline. As a form that was America’s popular music from the turn of the century to the late 1940s (later surpassed by rock ‘n’ roll) and America’s most dominant vernacular dance form for far longer, the elements of jazz are so embedded in American dance culture, jazz can never truly be absent from the landscape of contemporary dance trends. The work does not need to be called jazz to be jazzy. While there are fewer new jazz dance companies than in years past, the rumors of the demise of jazz have been greatly exaggerated. Artists like Michelle Dorrance, Jason Samuels Smith, and Dormeshia are clear torch bearers for the trajectory of jazz-influenced tap from the past to the present, while Camille A. Brown and LaTasha Barnes show us the through-line from early jazz to their contemporary aesthetics. The elements of jazz are easily found in the work of contemporary choreographers, if we care to look for them.

 

Melanie George is an educator, dramaturg, choreographer, and scholar.Read Bio

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