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So, What Happened to the REAL Jazz Genre at Dance Competitions?

During my years as a dance educator and competition judge, I’ve noticed that the jazz dance genre has changed considerably over time. Frankly, I believe that this change is most evident on the stages of dance competitions throughout the U.S. and abroad.

I posed this topic to a few fellow dance educators and here are their responses. Our hope is that these responses will promote a discussion on social media, at your studio, and well beyond as competition season begins.

JASON: Do you think the jazz dance genre has changed within dance competitions over the years?

Mickey DeFranco, jazz dance competition director for Center Stage Dance & Theater School, East Brunswick, NJ.

MICKEY: Yes, our jazz genre has changed - and it will continue to change. It is directly related to our past and current influences. In the true sense of early jazz, I would love to see it preserved. Early jazz dance is an art which reminds us of where we once stood, what we once represented, struggled through, celebrated, and experienced; it is a priceless art form. It is like preserving a classic novel or a brilliant piece of art that has made a huge impact on everything that followed. Losing this would be detrimental to the dance world.

Courtney Ortiz, founder of Impact Dance Adjudicators, Astoria NY.

COURTNEY: I think jazz is a huge part of competition dance. I personally grew up as a competitive jazz dancer. I always had a jazz solo throughout my competitive years - and I was always challenged to embody a new style of jazz dance. From Broadway jazz to Latin jazz, my teacher really showed me how diverse jazz could be.

Contemporary dance is now ruling the world in competitions and a lot of our "Jazz" dances are now looking like contemporary dance. I am a huge stickler for correct category placement while judging. So if I feel this "jazz" piece is pretty much another contemporary piece, I let the teacher know there needs to be more jazz elements involved for me to judge this as a jazz routine.

JASON: What do you think is the cause(s) of this change?

COURTNEY: I think the evolution of competition and commercial dance has caused this change. There is so much fusion going on that good old jazz is getting lost in the mix.

JASON: Do you think jazz dance needs to be preserved within the dance competition arena? If so, why?

MICKEY: One way to help preserve our jazz culture is to have dance competitions and their judging staff value jazz dance history. Many current venues place a high preference on how many tricks, turns and acro moves your dancers can do in a three minute routine.

As a jazz dance educator, I think it is imperative to place importance on styles and history. Time keeps on moving - and the "in moves" will only be in for a short period of time before the next wave comes. But our jazz history will always remain. We should use it as inspiration and a key to our creative side. It is our job to keep it alive and to make sure it is valued with such importance.

COURTNEY: Absolutely. There is a jazz category at competition for a reason…because we still hope to see REAL jazz dancing. I personally think jazz is one of the fundamentals of dance, just like ballet is. And honestly, some people may not realize how essential jazz is in the real professional world of dance. Jazz is now where my heart is, especially because I am doing jazz at all of my auditions.

JASON: What can we as dance educators, choreographers, and competition adjudicators do to help preserve the jazz dance genre when it comes to dance competition?

MICKEY: We are all responsible for the preservation of this art form. Since dance competitions are the only venue for so many young artists to perform, I would love to see them place more energy on the value of jazz and its tremendous lineage. Many of the judges themselves are not familiar with jazz history and have only been exposed to the current trend. Therefore, the pieces that get recognized at most competitions are those that fit in with the current dance fad.

On the education side of things, I would love to see more dance educators teach early jazz styles and expose our young dancers to the history, allowing them the gift of jazz and truly understanding the importance it had on our culture and dance world. We will begin to see more appreciation for jazz when we all do our part in keeping this amazing style of dance where it belongs…on top of the ever building jazz style.

Kari Williams, adjunct professor of dance at Wagner College in New York City.

KARI: It is important that we are fostering the solid development of both kinetic ideas and social elements of jazz dance, while establishing connections to historical and cultural contexts of the movement in jazz dance vocabulary. A meaningful progression of teaching jazz dance should ideally include:

  • An exploration of kinetic (i.e. body isolations, polycentric movement, inclined torso, grounded/earthiness etc.) and social elements (i.e. improvisational quality, polyrhythmic, call and response, marriage between the music and the movement) of authentic jazz dance.

  • The study of African roots of jazz dance and the basic connections to the development of vernacular (social) dances.

  • The study of rhythm-generated jazz dance and the establishment of connections to tap dance.

  • An exploration of the progression of vernacular dances to theatrical and musical theatre jazz dances.

  • The study of Jack Cole and the shift from authentic jazz to jazz-influenced dances.

  • An exploration of classical jazz dance to include the study of the technically codified jazz dances (blended with modern and ballet) created by Matt Mattox, Luigi, etc.

  • An exploration of commercial, concert and contemporary jazz dance.

  • Strengthening connections to kinetic and social elements of authentic jazz dance as seen in street jazz, hip hop and funk.

Through this progression, students will be able to engage deeper into jazz dance culture and be able to make meaningful connections with the study of jazz dance technique through multiple access points. Students that are passionate about the study of jazz dance should sharpen their skills through contact with professional artists in the expanded field. This will help students not only in technique classes, but in areas of future practice and performance.

MICKEY: As dance educators, I believe it is our responsibility to pass on these styles to our young artists. So many of today’s moves originated from early jazz. It is important to teach dancers the history of jazz through movement. It is like any other industry. You build on your foundation; you don't break the foundation down in order to add to it.

It is very easy to "fit in" the current dance trend and teach your students the "in" moves and tricks. But is that teaching? When you study literature do you burn the early writings and simply write reality shows? No, you build. That is what jazz dance represents: building our history, preserving it and continuing ahead.


What are your thoughts? Please share your feedback and continue the discussion in the Comments section, on social media, at your studio, and while attending conventions or any other dance event.


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