The birth of American jazz dance sprang from Afro-Cuban and Caribbean roots. Dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham traveled to the West Indies in 1936 to do field work in anthropology and dance and became fascinated by the indigenous dances she saw. Her exploration of this movement style eventually lead to the development of American Jazz dance. Other jazz dance pioneers like Lester Horton and Bob Fosse expanded on this dance vocabulary. Throw in a little ballet and you have jazz dance.
Ballet Influenced Steps
Many jazz dance steps come straight from ballet. The jazz pirouette looks like the ballet turn of the same name minus turned-out feet. Battements such as high leg kicks and chasses, are movements where one foot chases the other across the floor. In the developpe, your toe slides up the side of your calf and then straight out to the side exactly as it is performed in ballet. ‘The Falling Over the Log’ step is a pique passé where you come up on one toe and bring your other toe to your knee, then fall forward.
Afro-Cuban Influenced Moves
The Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s technique pulls heavily from early jazz influences like the Dunham technique. Another jazz style they perform--known as Horton technique—is the creation of dancer-choreographer Lester Horton in the 1940s and the '50s. Afro-cuban jazz steps the troupe performs include the ‘primitive squat’, which is hopping to the front with legs in second position--the ‘funky four corners’ moving the hips front, side, back and side in a large circle and the shimmie-a very fast shoulder shake. The shiver--shaking the whole body quickly--is another jazz move the troupe uses. The limbo is probably the most famous Afro-Cuban jazz move--you shimmie your shoulders while walking bent backwards. Ailey’s signature dance piece, “Revelations,” is full of shimmies and the limbo steps.
One of the most difficult steps to perform in dance is simply walking, and jazz walks are no exception. To jazz walk, move across the floor with your legs in plie--or bent. Dragging your leg after each step makes it the jazz drag. To perform the catwalk, bend forward and walk on your tiptoes--just like the Jets do in the movie “West Side Story.” Another very popular theatrical jazz move is the kick-ball-change. Kick your foot about one foot off the ground, then step back on the same foot, then forward on the opposite foot and you are doing one of the most popular walking steps in jazz.
People joke about jazz hands, but dancer-choreographer Bob Fosse perfected them. The articulation of the hands, feet and body in jazz begin with Fosse. Seductive shoulder roles and languid body gestures are all part of his repertoire. In one of Fosse’s signature steps—“The Rake”—the dancer leans back with pelvis forward, toe pointed out, one hand touching the brim of a bowler while the other hangs limply from the wrist at the waist. In his Academy Award winning movie “All That Jazz,” a favorite Fosse step known as “The Stack”—begins when one dancers sits on a chair with legs and arms in second position and at least one other dancer sits on his lap with legs together and arms lower—is in several dance sequences.