History of Jazz Dance

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, reed pipes 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. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music.

Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas and wail of the banzas, and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. 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. Whites found black musical performances on the plantation fascinating and often went to the slave quarters to watch slaves sing and dance. In New Orleans, whites would congregate to watch blacks perform songs and dances both during and after slavery. Blacks also became prominent as plantation musicians, providing music for their masters and mistresses on social occasions, usually dance music.

Fiddling was a common profession for black men during the days of slavery. 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. This was the first indigenous American musical theatre item. The roots of jazz dance where founded at this time through social dances; the shimmy, Charleston and the black bottom.

The plantation dance form also known as the Cakewalk involves bending of the back and the dropping of the hands and wrists. The term “cakewalk” is often used to indicate something that is very easy or effortless. Though the dance itself could be physically demanding, it was generally considered a fun, recreational pastime. One version of the cakewalk is sometimes taught, performed included in competitions within the Highland Dance community, especially in the southern United State. The Cato Street Conspiracy was an attempt to murder all the British cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool in 1820.

Some supported the high-ended attempts to ensure that the Spencean Philanthropists were found guilty, others remained conflicted due to the demand of parliamentary reform. In America, the Protestant church strongly disapproved of dance of any kind. Therefore, dances that occurred in the West Indies retained more of the African dance structure than did those of America. These dances can be classified as recreational or sacred. Drumming was banned in 1739 following the Cato Conspiracy. This was an insurrection by slaves that was mounted with the aid of messages transmitted by drum signals.

White plantation owners responded by banning all drumming, and it had the secondary effect of forcing slaves to search for other percussion options to accompany their dancing. The substitute instruments included quills (an assortment of pipes of different pitches), banjos, clapping hands and stamping feet, and the fiddle (violin). 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. It is now believed that Africans have had a bigger influence on western culture than previously suspected — not only on the cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America which has always been acknowledged, but on the culture of the United States. (Emery, 1972) African styles of dance and religious practices, African styles of architecture and art, and aspects of African music have had deeper impact in the United States than previously admitted. This

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