Evolution of Jazz Dance (according to Turlough Myers)
The first recordings of jazz music is of early, southern American, Dixie-land jazz in the late 1800s. It is understood that African American slaves found a way of expressing themselves and their culture through jazz. African Americans would dance to this early jazz music in a solo, African-rooted style. Over time, the slaves would mock their plantation owners by dancing, maintaining their own style, but partnered.
The “Cake Walk” is the first swing dance on record. Plantation owners would host a dance competition, styled after partnered African American dancing, which was ironically making fun of these white European dance styles. The winners of the cakewalk would win a cake, obviously. As jazz music evolved, so did the way the dance was stepped and partnered.
New Orleans, Dixie-land jazz evolved into the Charleston, straight out of Charleston, Carolina. First danced by the African Americans, it hit the mainstream and white people started copying it. The Charleston and the Black Bottom are recorded as the earliest known video clips of jazz dancing. Nothing was formally taught in classes; all steps were created on account of how the music felt and by watching others. At this point, all partnered dancing remained close in proximity, with small-medium sized steps. But in 1927, in the film After Seban, George “Shorty Stump” Snowdon broke away from his partner, the first recorded instance of it. However, it is thought that this break away actually happened first in 1925 at the Savoy Ballroom, while dancing the Charleston. The Savoy, in Harlem NYC, was the epitome of jazz music and dancing. This move by Snowdon changed partner dancing forever, and the Savoy was where people went to experience jazz in its roots and its evolution.
By the 1930s, jazz music hit the scene with big bands and exploded all over the place. The music developed and grew, in tempo and sound. “White Jazz” big bands were lead by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. And despite the times there were black band leaders too: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Chick Webb with his star singer Ella Fitzgerald. In the Savoy ballroom, race and segregation was not an issue. As Frankie Manning said, “[The Savoy] was the only integrated ballroom, well, in the United States. It was integrated to the point where whether you were white, Chinese or whatever, the only think they wanted to know was — Can you dance? That’s all we thought about.”
The lindy hop, influenced by tap dance and the Charleston, stepped in the mainstream of popular culture, and now everyone was swingin’! Chick Webb was the house band of the Savoy, and the best Savoy dancers were Shorty George and Herbert Whitey White. The latter is responsible for developing some of the exceptional dancers he met at the Savoy, such as Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns and Leon James, into Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who then appeared in great jazz dance movies (A Day at the Races, Hellzapoppin’, Hot Chocolate).
So next time you swing-out just think that jazz dance started from the African American roots of a celebration – celebrating freedom and a way to hold onto personal spirit. Make sure your next dance celebrates your own spirit!