The history of Authentic Jazz dance (Part 2)

Semi-abstract painting of dancersIn this second and final part of Nikki Santilli's exploration of authentic jazz dance, we discover the various styles and their evolution.

If you missed the first part of our series, you can read it in our Articles section found within the menu.

Lead image: 'Jitterbug (V)', between 1941-42, by William H Johnson. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image in the public domain.


The religious African Ring Shout

Another name suggested for Authentic Jazz Dance has been ‘Jazz Roots’. The roots of jazz dance are religious and stem from the Ring Shout.

A rhythmic shuffle and stamp-type movement enacted by a group in a circle, miming sung words, the Ring Shout was first seen in America in the plantation era. It continued well into the mid-19th century, possibly beyond, in southern states of the USA.

The Mcintosh County Singers performing examples of the Ring Shout. From the Library of Congress YouTube Channel

The Ring Dance is the origin for all jazz dances. It gave rise to the Walk Around ‘finale’ of the minstrel show and ‘patting Juba’, which pre-dated tap and other percussive dance.

It eventually inspired the ‘jam circle’, which was a supportive, spontaneous space created on a dance floor for groups of lindy hoppers and jazz dancers to improvise and offer friendly challenges while the rest of the circle claps and supports [1].

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The Cakewalk

Originally, the Cakewalk was a satirically theatrical strut performed by enslaved Africans mimicking the plantation owners and their society. Popular with audiences, when the show “In Dahomey” came to London's Shaftesbury Theatre in 1903, the British public complained that the Cakewalk had been taken out and it had to be reinstated by the troupe.

A man and a women dancing the cake walkThe Cakewalk underlined later jazz dance characteristics of individually-styled, humorous yet competitive, eccentric walking-based dance. “It is difficult… to call the steps of the cake-walk by name. In the walk you follow the music, and as you keep time with it in what is best defined as a march you improvise” [2].

Image of a couple dancing the Cake walk. Detail from a theatrical poster circa 1898 held by the Library of Congress.

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Ragtime dances

Ragtime was popular in America from the late 1890s and dances of the period included the One-Step, the Hesitation Waltz and its derivative the Half and Half.

The One-Step (a brisk walk to every beat of music) was the basis for the syncopated marches that made up much social dancing to ragtime music. From that basic step, ‘trots’, hops, and skips could be added to create various Animal dances. These included: the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Kangaroo Hop, Duck Waddle, Lame Duck and the Crab.

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Fox Trot

According to his biographer, it was African-American bandleader James Reese Europe who suggested the combination of quick and slow steps of the Fox Trot to Vernon Castle (of the famous American husband and wife team, Irene and Vernon Castle) who was struggling to find steps to put to W.C. Handy's "Memphis Blues".

Europe himself deflected the credit in the New York Tribune: "Mr Castle has generously given me credit for the fox-trot, yet the credit, as I have said, really belongs to Mr. Handy. You see, then, that both the tango and the fox-trot are really negro dances, as is the one-step. The one-step is the national dance of the negro, the negro always walking in his dances." [3].  

Irene and Vernon Castle in a dancing poseNow considered a ballroom dance, the Fox Trot is known by very few modern swing dancers, but traces of the Ragtime version exist in the later social swing dance styles of Lindy Hop (US East Coast) and Balboa (US West Coast).

The only Animal dances that continued to be seen on the dance floor after World War I were the Fox Trot along with the Turkey Trot. The other styles were considered old-fashioned and part of a lost, old world.

The Fox Trot outlasted even the Turkey Trot, and just about every popular jazz and later swing record after the War carried the subtitle, "Fox Trot" in an effort to appeal to dancers. The labelling however was indiscriminate and it was clearly no dancer who applied them!

Image of Irene and Vernon Castle, 1913, held by the Library of Congress. 

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Lindy Hop

According to legend, the Lindy Hop was created spontaneously during a dance marathon at the Manhattan Casino in 1928 by George “Shorty” Snowden and his then partner Mattie Purnell (both of whom you can see in an early dance film included in Part 1 of this article).

In an interview, the ever-modest Snowden said he was simply “doing the regular steps, just like we did them at the Savoy… only maybe a little faster” [4]. This suggests that the dance had already emerged sometime in the previous two years (the famous Savoy Ballroom opened in New York City in March 1926).

Initially a fast footwork, triple-time variation on set dances, Fox Trots and the relatively recent Texas Tommy, the Lindy Hop survived by absorbing these and other dances and disciplines. The 1920s Charleston, for example, is smoothed down and given a 4/4 make-over as it is taken over by the Lindy Hoppers. Even acrobatic moves inspired by vaudeville and circus were copied by the second generation of Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom and introduced as ‘air steps’.

The accepted narrative is that Lindy Hop was introduced into the UK as the Jitterbug by American GIs in the 1940s, but, thanks to Cab Calloway, we know that the British were already working on a version of Lindy Hop as early as 1934. (To put that in context, Frankie Manning joined Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers around the same time and had not yet come up with the idea for his famous air steps).

The Savoy style Lindy hop from the 1944 film "Go down death".  From the Vintage Swing Dance YouTube channel.

When Cab Calloway toured the UK in 1934, he noted that some of the Quickstep dancing in London reminded him of an elementary version of the Lindy Hop. He assumed that British dancers had copied these steps from the cinema and in an article, explained how, in the States, the dance had developed more complicated double and triple time versions [5]. His biographer Alyn Shipton reads this as a criticism on British dancing, but I would argue Calloway was courteous to notice the efforts that the British were making and was encouraging them by sharing his knowledge.

In 1934, the Lindy Hop had not yet achieved its key win at the Harvest Moon Ball – an event that really announced the dance style to New York City and to the world. For it already to be danced, however simply, on London dance floors is testament to the musical and cultural acuity of British youth. Their efforts remained elementary because a conference of ballroom teachers decided that the Lindy Hop was not appropriate for the British public and vetoed the suggestion of teaching it, despite the clearly avid interest among social dancers already at that time.

Keen to adopt this new jazzy dance, despite the lack of instruction, British social dancers could only flavour their current dances with a flash of Breakaway and Truckin’ to gesture at the more complex Lindy Hop. Interestingly, it seems that they applied these embellishments everywhere they could – to their Fox Trot and even their Waltz.

As early as 1932, ballroom doyenne Josephine Bradley reported on a new dance that she witnessed in New York "No! I am not going to teach it to all my pupils, but if I am feeling depressed I may jump on to the floor and do it myself. This dance, I discovered was called the Lindy Hop" [6].

Yet even in 1943, Bradley was still not ready to present the dance in its original form. A Pathé newsreel shows her introducing a young (white) couple who demonstrate the Jitterbug for a ballroom audience before exiting the stage and returning ‘tamed’ to dance the now-codified, Ballroom Jive [7].

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The Big Apple

The name ‘The Big Apple’ was given to a collection of steps first seen by white teenagers at a club called the Big Apple in South Carolina in 1937.

The dance spread locally then nationally as a group dance in which the steps were called (as in country dance) and performed by people in a circle (suggesting a connection to the Ring Shout). Specific couples were occasionally called to ‘shine’ or dance a partnered phrase in the middle of the circle.

British ballroom champion and teacher, Victor Sylvester, suggested that the reason the Big Apple didn’t take off in the UK as it had in America was due to a national shyness. He argued that the British preferred to dance to the line and group dances, such as the Palais Glide and Lambeth Walk respectively, where everyone did the same genteel steps. They were not ready for moves such as the ‘elephant’s tail’ where the dancers bend over and hold hands between their legs.

A 1938 newsreel demonstrating the big apple dance. From the Vintage Swing Dance YouTube channel.

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Historically the Shag is a catch-all term for a number of local dances (Carolina Shag, Collegiate Shag, St Louis Shag and more) that came to prominence with the Big Apple dancers, who used it for their ‘shines’ in the late 1930s.

The Shag was used in several cartoons of the period due to its exaggerated style, with one arm of both partners often held up high and knees lifted out to the sides, while the figures repeat step hop and run patterns [8]. It retains a youthful, collegiate, and generally joyful image. The Shag experienced a few small revivals but it only established itself on an international (non-US) dance floors and classes in the last 10 years.

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Balboa was a swing dance style that took its name from the peninsula on the West Coast of America, before the Lindy Hop was seen there. It is a ‘crush dance’ with a steady body-to-body closed hold over a continuously improvised series of shuffle patterns. These are communicated by very rapid weight changes.

The Balboa combines a shag-like combination of steps and holds and the quicks and slows of Foxtrot. It was considered a 'dancer’s dance' because In contrast to most other jazz dances, the early Balboa was too subtle for performance or competition.

The fast frenetic Balboa-swing style from the 1943 film short Maharaja.

After Lindy Hop became known in California, the hybrid Bal-Swing style developed, which allowed for more open holds, underarm turns and breakaways. In terms of recent history, Balboa was prized as a way to dance to very fast tempos over an extended period and gypsy jazz (originally a concert style of jazz music) was drawn into the social dance repertoire to satisfy the dancers' appetitie for challenging tempos.

However, tempos for all jazz dances seem to have been lowered gradually over the years, and the current fad appears to be for the Slow Balboa with tempos around the 100 beats per minute [9].

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Solo moves and the different dance styles

Despite the modern tendency to teach partnered jazz and swing dances as pure exercises in lead and follow, dividing styles into ‘solo’ and ‘partnered’ can be misleading (as we discussed in Part 1).

It is true that 1920s Charleston and 1930s Jazz Steps (also known as Big Apple steps) are executed by the individual without a physical connection to anyone else. However, these dances can still be danced in pairs or groups as well as individually. The groups perform choreographed routines, and participate in ‘jam circles’ where a space is provided in a circle of dancers for a friendly dance battle, social dancing in pairs or small groups, and so on. These are all ways in which solo jazz is not at all ‘solo’.

Well-known ‘solo’ jazz moves include steps that became famous in their own right for a season, such as the Suzie Q, Truckin’ and Peckin’.

The Suzie Q is a Charleston variation and Truckin’ was apparently a dance step derived from the dancing waiters of the 1920s, competing for tips. Peckin’, which was all the rage in 1937, is a head isolation movement that resembles a chicken and can be done alone or facing a partner!

The somewhat dated clip below from the 1938 feature film "Start Cheering" demonstrates a number of the basic solo and group dance moves (incorporated into a tap dance). The examples include: the Big Apple, Truckin', Suzy-Q and Charleston.

1938 "Start Cheering", from the Vintage Swing Dance YouTube Channel

Solo dances from the Cakewalk and Animal dances to Charleston, Black Bottom and Big Apple steps are full of playfulness and theatricality. This is unsurprising considering their close relation to variety performances.

Although the rhythmic footwork is not amplified, there can be much self-expression in the upper body. There’s a teasing that the dancer has got tied in a knot (Bees Knees, Black Bottom), is about to lose their balance (Fall Off the Log, Skip Up) or even a direct imitation from everyday life. (Frankie Manning claimed he was inspired to create Gaze Afar from watching cowboy movies and the Pimp Walk from watching those men strut around Harlem).

Such a wide repertoire allows Authentic Jazz Dance to stay flexible enough to follow the music anywhere or make up its own challenges.

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The gift of dance

When jazz music shook itself free of its social dancers in the 1950s, it became considered more as an intellectual art form. As a consequence, it was left with a drastically reduced audience, who were often caricatured as beard-stroking males – a caricature that mercilessly parodied their physicality of entirely passive listening.

To dance with someone ‘solo’ or ‘partnered’ to jazz or swing music is to experience a wordless conversation in rhythm, with humour, call and response, embellishment and signature moves.

It involves signals, suggestions that are accepted but sometimes turned around before being returned. It is actively communal listening – discussing the music as it is played – a shared appreciation, where the ‘speakers’ partake in what they are sharing, at the very moment it appears in the world as a piece of music.

There is no gift quite like it.

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[1] The Ring Shout was both a religious ritual that enabled enslaved Africans to express their protest and desire for freedom. It was also a way to embed coded messages to their community concerning secret meetings or advice to those planning an escape. Willie "The Lion" Smith notes that the Gullahs and Geechies (African Americans who live in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, Florida, South Caroline and North Carolina) "really went for our style of playing" of Cakewalks, cotillions and natural blues in the Jungles Casino, (where James P Johnson first saw the Charleston step). Music on My Mind: Doubleday, ASIN B0007DKJ4W, pp 65-67. 

[2] The Syncopated Times, November 27, 2018, extract 'How to Cake Walk' by Aida Overton Walker, July 1, 1903, Tatler Magazine.

[3] A Life in Ragtime, Reid Badger, Oxford University Press, 1995, p.116.

[4] Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance, New York: Da Capo Press, p.316.

[5] Notes from my London Diary, by Cab Calloway, Tune Times, April 1934 p.369

[6]  A Trip to New York, by Josephine Bradley, Dancing Times, March 1932 p 684

[7]  Josephine Bradley (British Pathé) newsreel, 1943

[8]  As an example: All the cats join in1946 cartoon, music by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra

[9] By comparison, the ultimate challenge and, for some years, the last song to be played for social dancers at the London Balboa Festival (2003–12), is Jimmie Lunceford’s “White Heat”. This clocks up to around 300 beats per minute.

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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 has choreographed 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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