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The History of Jazz Dance

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Maggie Miller

Dance Appreciation

Erin Leigh


Jazz Dance

"Jazz dance mirrors the social history of the American people, reflecting ethnic influences, historical events, and cultural changes" (Kraines, 2005,1). When I was younger I used to take dance. I hated ballet, liked gymnastics, and thought tap was okay; but I loved jazz. I took jazz dance three times a week and never complained; it was my life. People all over the world are familiar with jazz dance. Jazz dance is found in almost every form of dance; even the Las Vegas showgirls are jazz dancers in some form. This style in dancing is full of energy and life as well as a lot of fun. Jazz dance has a lot of historical significance and the movements are unique to the form.

Jazz originally came from African rhythms and its influences. The cultural traditions of the Africans were to celebrate everything through music and dance. During the 1700s slavery began to progress in Europe . Slave owners were cruel and had no concern towards the African culture and many slaves were not allowed to carry on with their normal traditions and ceremonies. In 1740, The Slave Act was passed banning the playing of African drums and the performance of traditional dances. The prohibition led to other forms of self-expression used by the slaves such as feet movements and hand clapping.

African slaves slowly began to learn about the music and dancing culture of the Europeans. Their exposure to another culture started the fusion of West African music and "dance tradition to the harmonies and musical structure of European music" (Kraines, 2005, 2). It is evident today that the styles of the two cultures have been fused to create many different dance styles. American dance has been strongly influenced by African elements in dance such as the rhythm and beats as well as movements. The shimmy and the Snake hips can be traces back to dances in Africa .

In the nineteenth century Americans discovered the music and dance performed by the African slaves. After watching and taking time to analyze the slave's movements, the minstrel show was created. This show was played by white Americans, with a face painted black, who made a parody out of the life of a slave while also popularizing the music and dance of the African culture. The Civil War between the north and the south started in 1861. After the Civil War was over in 1865 the minstrel shows began to become more popular throughout the United States , although these shows were a "huge and tasteless business" (Stearns, 1979, 55). The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and this was a great form of transportation for the minstrel shows. The railroad provided a way for many of these shows to travel causing the business of minstrel shows to become the main show in entertainment. Later on in the nineteenth century the Fugitive Slave Act of 1879 was created and most slaves were freed. These slaves then migrated north to the states that did not support slavery. These slaves that moved north began to replace the painted black faced Americans. The cakewalk, a dance invented by Africans, began to become incorporated into the minstrel shows and soon after the cakewalk became the theatrical ending to the show. Minstrel shows became more popular than they had ever been and with the help and influence of actual black performers the buck-and-wing was introduced. This type of dance had off beat rhythms and the metrical pattern was the reverse of the typical European metrical pattern. The popularity of this dance lead musicians to created new accompaniments that had unusual rhythms, this was called syncopation. This new creation of beats changed the music of the time and this type of music became known as jazz. Jazz music evolved and so did the dances and movements associated with the music.

Jazz became more popular among mainstream America , over the next few decades in the beginning of the twentieth century. "At the close of the minstrel period, the syncopated rhythms of American ragtime bands accompanied the introduction of early forms of jazz dances. In the brief period from 1910 through 1915, more than a hundred new dances emerged and disappeared from American ballrooms" (Kraines, 2005, 3). During the 1920s two dancers by the name of Vernon and Irene Castle came to the forefront of the jazz dance world. They took their unique ideas and styles and made jazz dance a very popular fad in the upper classes of society. In 1914 the First World War started and dancing became a way for people to interact and have a good time. Many people began to dance in restaurants and cabarets. During the latter part of the 1920s movies were no longer without sound and dialogue and many people flocked to the theatres so see this new kind of show, leaving Broadway plays in the dust. The 1930s brought on the Great Depression and many people across America were seeking a refuge from their everyday lives and they found this in dance halls and competitions.

Over the next ten years many musical and dance artists became popular and American was thriving on jazz dance. Broadway musicals, although not as popular as movies, were very famous and many important jazz dancers emerged from the spotlight. A very well known Broadway play called 42 nd Street was choreographed by the "subtle artistry of Fred Astaire, the most graceful and beguiling dancer the movies has ever known" (Kraines, 2005, 6). Astaire was huge on Broadway; he was the man to play the leading role. He spent many long hours learning ballroom dancing. "[The] use of his arms and hands, and indeed his entire body, was one of his greatest contributions to American vernacular dance" (Stearns, 1979, 223). America loved him. His dance style was unique. After his emergence into mainstream America , jazz dance became the centerpiece of American dance not only influence a culture, but a lifestyle.

Many women such as Betty Gable, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Rita Hayworth came to the front of the jazz industry. During the early 1950s a man by the name of Gene Kelly became famous for his unique dancing and choreography. He choreographed two films known for their "fusion of dance and drama in film [which] are An American Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952)"



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