Jazz dance is an umbrella term encompassing several different styles of dance that became popular in the early 20th-century. Though jazz dance has mixed roots extending back through both African and European traditions, it’s a uniquely American creation, which developed simultaneously with jazz music in New Orleans. Unlike in other parts of the United States, slaves in New Orleans were allowed to retain and practice elements of their African heritage, and on Sundays, would gather in the Place des Nègres — later called Congo Square — to sing and dance.
Eventually, this kind of social song and dance became popularized beyond the African American communities, especially as Southern blacks migrated to Northern cities during the Great Migration. Social dances like the Charleston and the Jitterbug caught on. In the 1940s, the improvised, social aspect of jazz dance began to be replaced with intricate choreography as more dancers with training in ballet and Modern took up the dance form, especially on Broadway stages. This emerging style of technical jazz became codified in the movement of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse.
Today, jazz dance continues to evolve and blend with other dance styles — for example, street jazz and theatre dance. However, true to its roots, jazz dance continues to hearken back to the ethnic eclecticism that birthed it.
Some recent and contemporary pioneers of jazz dance are Katherine Dunham, Michael Jackson, Luigi Faccuito, and Michael Bennett. Noted jazz choreographers on SYTYCD include Wade Robson, Mandy Moore, and Sonya Tayeh.
Some identifying elements of jazz dance include:
- Isolations: a dancer isolates one specific part of her body, such as her rib cage or wrist
- Grounded movement: dancers keep a low center of gravity, and often bend their knees
- Syncopation: accenting an offbeat or note of the musical accompaniment that surprises the audience
- Contractions: motivated by her breath, a dancer will make a C-shape with her core
- Sensuality: there is a sexiness in jazz dance that is lacking in more traditional styles