The history of Authentic Jazz dance (Part 1)

Semi-abstract collage of two dancersDancer, teacher and writer Nikki Santilli explores the development of jazz dance through the different musical eras.

This article continues from our recent Top 10 questions about jazz series, which addresses the basic question: What is jazz dance?

In this first part of a two-part article, we introduce the concept of authentic jazz dance and describe the first steps in jazz dance evolution. We also discuss how jazz musicians related to dance and suggest how music and dance influenced each other.

Lead image: 'Jitterbugs (II)', between 1939-40, by William H Johnson. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image in the public domain.




Between the Waltzes and Polkas, the Schottiches [1] and other set dances that had been the mainstay for social dances, a different sound emerged in American dance halls a few years before World War I.

People responded physically to these sounds by exploring different footwork patterns, by dancing with another person or participating in the music as a solo dancer. The effect was to interrupt the traditional, harmonious, ‘line of dance’ for a mixture of movements that often attracted censure and/or scorn as well as admiration.

Jazz dance has come to refer to commercial, choreographed dance by well-trained dancers. But “Authentic Jazz Dance” developed in various American towns and cities as a response to the new jazz (and later, swing) music. The originators and early innovators were, like the jazz musicians, African American. Their impact and legacy continues to this day.

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An evolution of styles

Just like the music, Authentic Jazz dance covers a variety of individual styles that evolve through a competitive collaboration.

At its cutting edge, this competition is through pitched battles or ‘jams’, and at its gentler side, between two people in a corner of the social dance floor. Individuality, signature moves and innovation develop through practice rather than theory and are all highly-respected qualities, if not goals, of the authentic jazz dancer.

A couple dancingThe name "Authentic Jazz dance" itself is worthy of note. Early jazz dancer-turned-teacher, Pepsi Bethel, felt obliged to coin the term to distinguish it from the ballet-derived jazz dance of Bob Fosse and similar studio-and show-based choreographers, that appeared in the late 1950s.

To add insult to injury, ‘the new jazz dance’ was almost the opposite of the style from which it took its name. Authentic Jazz dance is improvisational and loose-limbed. It can be solo or partnered; it ‘sits in’ with the band; involving itself in the call and response. Authentic Jazz dance fleshes out a solo during a stop-time break, or syncopates a riff in a combination of (silent) body movement and/or whispering footwork rhythms.

That someone involved in the original art form needed to add the word ‘authentic’ is a sad indictment on the appropriation repeatedly suffered by black artists since the era of enslavement. As the status of its name suggests, every jazz dance style enacts a protest as well as a celebration. This is from its roots in the era of enslavement, through ragtime, jazz age, swing era and beyond.

'Bopping at the Rose and Crown' - Image of a dancing couple from Jazz Illustrated, Vol 1, No 3, January 1950.

A symbiotic relationship

Authentic Jazz dance is intimately tied to the music and changes as the musical styles and patterns change. One cannot dance a '20s Charleston to a swinging Lionel Hampton track, for example.

While we cannot be sure which came first, musicians and dancers rehearsed and worked together developing their art in a symbiotic way. The cutting contests and jam sessions between jazz musicians, for example, is reflected in the jam circles of social dancers.

However, when jazz moved away from the dance focus of the swing era to the ‘bebop’ or ‘modern’ era, the social dances could not follow. The complexities and subtleties of partnered and rhythm dancing of the jazz swing-era were lost to the simplistic, if fun, Jive, Rock 'n' Roll, Twist and increasingly solo styles.

Solo and partnered dances

One need only watch the top Lindy Hop teams, such as George Snowden and Big Bea, Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan or Al Minns and Leon James, to understand that partnered jazz dance is a duet. It is a collaboration between two (solo) dancers who communicate through their arms, sending signals between them, responding, making jokes, surprising each other and slipping back into harmony again.

Similarly, solo dancing is rarely an isolated experience: it can occur in a moment of breakaway from a partner; in the middle of a jam circle or simply in a partnered dance that does not involve a ballroom ‘hold’. It is the visible display of a listener’s experience of a piece of jazz.  The dancer responds to the music physically, reflecting its rhythm, responding to its calls, even sometimes enacting its lyrics.

In either performance or social mode, Authentic Jazz dance is as valid (and can be as intense) a listening experience as that of the passive, seated listener in a concert hall. The beauty of watching an Authentic Jazz dancer is that they embody and respond to the music sent out from the bandstand – both the rhythm and the melody.

The pulse

Regardless of style, the Authentic Jazz dancer marks every beat of music in what is referred to as the ‘pulse’ with an almost imperceptible bounce into the ground.

Many musicians who play for dancers assume that we are only interested in tempo and, of course, taking the pulse will also set you up for the right tempo, but this is to misunderstand the pulse. The pulse is simply a way of internalising the music within the dancer’s body and connecting two partnered dancers together to the music.

Dance styles attach themselves to various fashions: hot jazz, smooth swing, manouche, western swing, slow drags, etc. They have local variations, but the pulse connects them all, underpinning every choice of step and supporting rhythms, especially variations and syncopations.

A 1955 Pathé compilation of earlier film clips from the 1920s showing the Charleston and Black Bottom dances. From the Vintage Swing Dance YouTube channel.

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First steps and early dances

Jazz dancing has always involved some form of interruption and lively response. It began at the turn of the twentieth century simply as a walk, because public music, played by bands such as John Sousa’s, was marching music. With its characteristic oom-pah bass sound, this music supported a large number of people walking in step at parades, dance halls and ballrooms.

Sideny Bechet playing the soprano saxophoneIn his autobiography, jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet remembers the parades in New Orleans when he was a boy in the early years of the twentieth century. It is not the processions themselves that he describes so much as the poorer people, or ‘second liners’, who played around them: “They had to make their own parade with broomsticks, kerchiefs, tin pans, any old damn’ thing.”

The young Bechet joined these second lines, “singing, dancing, hollering – oh it just couldn’t be stopped”[2]. They would get shoo-ed away by the police who they dodged by diverting down side streets before re-emerging to re-join the main parade.

It seems natural that such spirited youngsters would not be satisfied with a straight march but would be syncopating their steps, even before the music itself began to be ragged.

Similarly, in the ballrooms, dancers either reflected the 2/4 beat with a One-Step or broke it up with the disruptive Animal dances. The One-Step was a ‘closed position’ partner dance version of a march, in which the lead (generally considered the male’s role at the time) walked forward and his partner backwards in the traditional ‘line of dance’, anti-clockwise around the dance floor.

By contrast, Animal Dances were a collection of eccentric hops, skips, shuffles and waddles that disrupted the harmonious line of dance. They used exaggerated, jerky, and relatively bizarre posturing. After centuries of harmonious sequence dancing, the Turkey Trot, Duck Waddle and more saw people inhabit the dance floor in radically new ways: moving around it in zig zag, rotating and straight lines or staying in one place, in an almost entirely unpredictable manner [3].

Image of Sidney Bechet from Jazz Music, Vol 4, No 3, 'Jazz in New Orleans, 1949'

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Following the music

The Charleston broke up traditional ideas of social dancing, namely that one danced exclusively with another person per one piece of music. A catch-all term for a variety of steps and fads, the Charleston announced the modern age by its fluidity: people danced solo, in groups, in pairs, changed partners, all during a single piece of music. The press was full of warnings to young women that dancing was the path to their ruin.

By the 1930s, the predominant 2/4 beat in jazz had evolved into a smoother 4/4 time. We can see the change very easily by comparing the dancer’s 1920s Charleston with a 1930s (or Lindy) Charleston.

Increasing the sense of fragmentation that we see in much art after World War I, body lines in 1920s Charleston are ‘broken’ into startlingly unnatural positions at the knees, ankles, elbows and wrists. The Double Basic, a well-known 1920s Charleston move in dance manuals of the period, consists of a single walk (where the weight changes) and a tap (where the foot strikes the floor but does not take any weight).

By the 1930s, the Charleston was absorbed by the Lindy Hop where it was smoothed out to match the 4/4 sound. In place of the staccato step/tap came a bouncing ‘rock step’ on beats 1, 2 (pushing off the ball of one foot to land on the first ‘step’), a striding kick to the second step on 3, 4, an isolated kick 5 (or 1 of the next bar, in musician’s terms) followed by a contraction and return step (6, 7, 8).

This Lindy Charleston was also a partnered dance step and could be executed in promenade (side-by-side) or shadow position (a variation called the Back Charleston) [4].

The Lindy Hop also proved flexible in the face of changing musical styles. At its height, Lindy Hop benefited from the play between 6-count and 8-count figures, which meant that the dancers sometimes sat squarely in a 2-bar phrase and at other times, skipped across them, slightly at odds until they re-synchronised, ideally at a resolve or break.

The video clip below is from the 1941 film Hellzapoppin' and includes professional dancers from 'Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers' dance troupe. Principal choreography was created by Frankie Manning. The dancers are, in order of appearance:

Hellzapoppin' Lindy Hop dancers from Black Pepper Swing YouTube channel

In the same way that the English language benefits from concurrent traces of Anglo-Saxon and Latin, which results in a wide vocabulary that can suit different moods and rhythms, so too Lindy Hop will both sit inside a 2-bar phrase or straddle it in a form generally understood by its dancers to be a spontaneous blending of 6-beat and 8-beat moves.

When big band music gave way to the tighter sounds of rhythm and blues in the late 1940s and then Rock ’n’ Roll in the 1950s, the Lindy Hop responded by largely dropping its 8-count moves. Alongside Boogie-Woogie dancing, which emphasises triple time, the Lindy then restricted itself to 6-count moves.

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Who influenced who?

It is not entirely clear which comes first: an innovation in music or a challenge by dancers to which musicians respond.

Dance historian Howard Spring favours the dancers as pushing innovations in music, specifically the shift from 2/4 to 4/4. Spring points to the seminal film clip in the 1929 short, “After Seben”, a scene noted for featuring the father of Lindy Hop, George Snowden, who named the dance. They are dancing the earliest form of the dance that we have on film with Snowden the third male dancer (note that the couple exit with a cake walk).

In the scene (below), the three couples compete, dancing to a few measures of "Sweet Sue, just you" performed by Chick Webb's Jungle Band. The master of ceremonies is actor and Vaudeville dancer James Barton, who is performing in blackface.

"After Seben" from the Black Pepper Swing YouTube channel

Paul Whiteman released a version of "Sweet Sue, just you" in 1929 that might be described as ‘saccharine’ except for Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet solo. Webb’s version in the film clip above is from the same year and is hot like Bix’s moment, but in stark contrast to Whiteman’s overall sound. It is also an evolution from the other earlier 'sweet' versions by Earl Burtnett and his Orchestra and Ben Pollack and his Californians (which included Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller).

It is interesting to suggest that what we are watching in "After Seben" is dancers who are pushing the beat until 'sweet' becomes 'hot'. The three dance couples demonstrate three different stylings, all of them transitional in that they innovate with the basic Charleston step. They add runs and breakaways that will eventually settle into a recognised dance, the Lindy Hop [5].

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Musicians and dancing

When the music and dance were evolving, many musicians themselves were also dancers (a small but significant difference to the scene today). Charleston composer and stride piano pioneer James P Johnson said, “all of us used to be proud of our dancing – Louis Armstrong, for instance, was considered the finest dancer among the musicians.”[6].

Cab Calloway in a white suit holding a baton

Dancer Frankie Manning wrote of dancing with Ella Fitzgerald at the Savoy [7] and Ella herself spoke of dancing Lindy Hop with Dizzy Gillespie: “we used to Lindy Hop a lot […] the band would start playing, and we get up and that was it! We used to take the floor over. Yeah, do the Lindy Hop because we could do it. Yeah, we danced like mad together. Dizzy was a good dancer. Both of us were good dancers. And we’d go with the old Savoy steps” [8].

Britain’s own celebrated bandleader, Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson was not a musician at all, but a dancer. The only footage we have of him performing is as a tap dancer and before he went to America to study jazz dancers and musicians, after which he earned his ‘snakehips’ nickname. But perhaps the best jazz dancer among musicians of the era was the man that Snakehips modelled himself on: Cab Calloway.

With no formal training, Calloway’s dancing is agile, fluid and distinctive. He bends low and appears to try out all sorts of postures for his struts. Using his entire body to conduct, he simultaneously instructs the musicians while also responding to what they produce.

Calloway owns his steps with personality and invention as well as musicality, whether solo or partnered. This is evidenced in the way he weaves overt drug imagery through movement and scatting (that nevertheless bypassed many who watched) in “Kicking the Gong Around”, to his Lindy Hop with dancer/singer Marie Bryant in the movie short “Calloway Boogie”, 1950.

If there is a good reason for a closer working relationship between Authentic Jazz Dancers and musicians, Brian Harker points out the change in Louis Armstrong’s style around the time he worked closely with dance team Brown and McGraw between 1926 to 1927. Armstrong, says Harker, “fundamentally changed his approach to rhythm” and it happened to be around the same time as the Lindy Hop first appeared. McGraw and Brown were acrobatic dancers, known for their unpredictability [9].

Bebop is often considered to be the musician’s rejection of the simple music required by social dancers. An incomplete truth at best, it is nevertheless a fact that when the music moved forward again, after the swing era, its audience was no longer able to listen, react, interpret and share what they heard through their body. Listening to jazz became a much more passive than active experience.

Photograph of Cab Calloway 1942. Photographer unknown. Public domain.

In the final part of 'The history of authentic jazz dance', we describe a wide range of authentic jazz dances. We explore their evolution during the 20th century and have included some contemporary film clips to help you visualise some of the different styles.

Read the next part of this article.

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[1] The Schottische is a partnered country dance made popular in the Victorian era as part of the Bohemian folk-dance craze.

[2] "Treat it gentle: An autobiography", Da Capo Press, Sidney Bechet, p.67

[3] Animal dances harkened back to one of the characteristics of West African dance introduced to America by enslaved people, in which dancers enacted movements that mimicked birds and other animals.

[4] When reading my description of a figure, I suggest imagining a step like the Charleston as a room with many doors – one may start with a tap back or a step forward. Every step is also available to be ‘edited’, adjusted, or embellished by any dancer so there will usually be a basic step and a host of variations that have been remembered alongside.

[5] An ‘eccentric’ solo dance by actor James Barton follows this dance contest. Barton was a highly successful Irish dancer who appears in blackface. His contortions, knee drops and leg wraps, which had already been practised for some time, look like early (proto) hip hop.

[6] Conversations with James P Johnson by Tom Davin Jazz Review Vol. 2 No.7 p.13

[7] “The Savoy was a great equalizer. We didn’t pay that much attention to famous people if they couldn’t dance […] Bill Robinson might be a great tap dancer, but could he Lindy Hop? Actually, he could, a little. Ella Fitzgerald used to come down off the bandstand to dance quite a lot […] she often Lindy Hopped with me.” Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, Pennsylvania: Temple UP, 2007, p.71.

[8] Ella Fitzgerald quoted in Dizzy: To Be Or Not To Bop - The Autobiography of Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser, London: Quartet Books, 1979, p.273.

[9] Harker, Brian. Louis Armstrong, Eccentric Dance, and the Evolution of Jazz on the Eve of Swing. Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 61, No. 1, 2008, pp. 67–121. JSTOR.

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Nikki Santilli

Authentic Dance Tutor at Morley College London, Nikki also runs her own independent classes and, pre-pandemic, hosted the live-music social dance Paper Moon, which she hopes to revive. During the pandemic, Nikki organized an online series of talks, Rhythm & Book, on the history of jazz dance, music, dress and literature.

Nikki Santilli wearing a headscarf and smilingNikki choreographed for a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (Rose Theatre, 2018); consulted on Jitterbug in From Here to Eternity (Shaftesbury Theatre, 2013); was a featured dancer on The Tracy Ullman Show and Paul O’Grady Show.

She has collaborated with poets Vahni Capildeo (Forward Poetry prize winner) and Jaime Robles for improvised and staged performances. She has written and choreographed several original pieces including Journey Through Jazz (ArtsDepot 2009, 2010); Hit That Jive Jack/Wild City (2014); Tales of the Jazz Age (2018).

Besides teaching, performing and choreographing, Nikki holds a doctorate in prose poetry. She is the author of Such Rare Citings: the prose poem in English Literature (2003) and recently brought her two artistic loves together in an article, “Prose Poetry and the Spirit of Jazz” (British Prose Poetry, ed Jane Monson 2018).

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