Jazz Dance History

Early roots of jazz dance came from African culture imported by slaves. In Africa, natives danced to celebrate cycles of life: birth, puberty, marriage and death. Children, adults and the elderly all depended on dance to express their cultural beliefs. Drums, string instruments, chimes, reedpipes and other percussion instruments set the beat for the dancers.

Slaves continued to interpret life through dance. However, their dances, while based on the traditions of Africa, were influenced by the European background of the plantation owners, so the dances changed. The only place where African dances remained outside this influence was Congo Square in New Orleans.

From 1805 to 1880 slaves were permitted to dance by the French and Spanish Catholics who inhabited the area. They felt that providing slaves with an opportunity to dance under supervision would make the slaves happier, monitor plans for revolt, and prevent secret voodoo dances from being performed.

Watching slaves dance led whites to stereotyping. Whites began blackening their faces and imitating slave dancers as early as the 1800s. John Durang, one of the first American professional dancers, described parts of his routine in 1789 as containing "shuffles," a movement of slave dancers. The first worldwide dance imitating slave dancers was the "Jump Jim Crow" by Thomas Rice in 1828.

This dance copied the movement of a crippled slave and became the basis for an era of American entertainment founded on the crude stereotype of the dancing slave.

Another big influence on dance in America was the Minstrel show, which was popular from 1845 to 1900. Composed of a troupe of up to fifty performers who traveled from city to city, the Minstrel show portrayed blacks as slow, shuffling idiots or sharply dressed dandies.

Since the 1920s jazz dance has meant a constantly evolving form of popular and artistic dance movement. As popular culture changes, so does jazz dance. Crucial to jazz dance is individuality and improvisation.

Jazz dances include the Charleston and the Black Bottom from the 1920s, theater dances of Bob Fosse, funky jazz and lyrical jazz.

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