Dance Professor Updates Jazz Dance History with New Book
What is jazz dance? What are its roots? What forms does it take today?
These questions and more are answered in Dr. Wendy Oliver’s new book, Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida, 2014).
Co-edited with Lindsay Guarino, assistant professor of dance at Salve Regina University, Jazz Dance offers the only overview of trends and developments since 1960. Oliver and Guarino have assembled an array of seasoned practitioners and scholars who trace the numerous histories of jazz dance and examine various aspects of the field, including trends, influences, training, race, aesthetics, international appeal, and its relationship to tap, rock, indie, black concert dance, and Latin dance.
Here, Oliver discusses why they focused on jazz dance, why it’s an important art form, and some surprises she found along the way.
Why did you want to tackle this subject?
My colleague Lindsay Guarino and I were lamenting the lack of a good, comprehensive, up-to-date textbook on jazz dance history. There was an excellent book published in 1968 (Jazz Dance, by Marshall and Jean Stearns), but nothing significant since that time. We both felt that it was important to have a book appropriate for college students and others interested in the topic. We did an informal survey of many of our dance colleagues around the country, and found that they also felt that there was a lack in the jazz dance history literature that needed correcting.
You interviewed several, prominent scholars and practitioners for the book. What did each bring to the discussion?
We had a good idea of what topics were important to the book and some of the people who were experts in those areas, so we approached these people and asked them to participate. In addition, we posted a call for authors with various professional dance scholar organizations, such as the Congress on Research for Dance and Dance History Scholars. Some articles were written by authors with extensive experience in performing, teaching, and choreographing jazz dance. Other articles were written by dance scholars who have researched jazz dance history for many years. The perspective of these two types of authors was broadening, and the multiple perspectives of our many authors brought a sense of how jazz has branched out in many different directions since its origins in the 1920s.
As a professor of dance and Dance Company director, tell me why jazz dance is an important form? What separates it from other types of dance?
Jazz dance has been largely overlooked as an artistic form, both on college campuses and in the professional dance community. This stems largely from its origins as a popular African-American dance form of the Jazz Age, particularly the 1920s-30s. Because it was seen mainly as a social dance form and as entertainment, it initially had a “low art” reputation and was seen as separate from of ballet and modern dance. Racism, too, played a role in its classification. After the Jazz Age, jazz dance branched out and many different variants of jazz dance were invented. One of these, theatrical jazz dance, became an important part of Broadway and musical theatre. In addition to jazz’s role on Broadway, there developed a “concert dance” form of jazz, performed by jazz dance companies based around the aesthetic visions of various talented choreographers. Today, many different forms of jazz dance exist, ranging from “authentic” jazz (a recreation of dances done in the 1920s and 30s) to contemporary jazz dance done to the music of today. Jazz dance is a uniquely American dance form rooted in West African aesthetics that traveled to the U.S. through the slave trade. It is important to celebrate and honor its heritage and its more modern expressions.
In doing research for the book, was there anything, in particular, that surprised you?
Some of our authors had widely divergent opinions of the definition of jazz dance. Rather than trying to pin down the definition of jazz dance to one thing, my co-editor and I included a section defining the many different varieties of jazz dance, such as authentic jazz, vernacular jazz, theatrical jazz, concert jazz, jazz funk, and many more, in order to accommodate varying definitions.
Another surprising thing was the way artists chose or did not choose to use the word “jazz” to describe what they did. For instance, African American artist Katherine Dunham chose not to call her work jazz dance even though it contained many elements of jazz. And white choreographer Jack Cole did not call his work jazz dance, even though he is sometimes called the “father of [theatrical] jazz dance.” He felt that the only true jazz dance was the authentic style of the 1920s-30s, and that anything that had branched away from that could not accurately be called jazz dance. On the other hand, many dance companies today that have the word “jazz” in their names do not do any movement that would be commonly considered “jazz.”
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
We would like readers to appreciate the wide scope of jazz dance today, as well as its African roots. We hope that readers learn about the close connection between the development of jazz dance and jazz music, and the ways that relationship changed over the decades. Finally, we want readers to appreciate that jazz dance, like any art form, is intimately tied to its culture and therefore touches on interesting and controversial socio-political and aesthetic issues that can and should be examined from a critical perspective.