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Getting Jazzy With It!

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Sharp. Percussive. Sleek. Fierce. Strong. Those words all come to mind when we think of jazz dance. Jazz dance began as an exploration of movement utilizing jazz music, and continues to evolve with current pop culture trends and music styles. The history of jazz dance is rich with influences, however, some dance professionals lament the lack of traditional jazz style within current choreography. Today, IDA judges Colin, Courtney, and Lesley join us to discuss all things jazz, and share some of their favorite jazz dance inspirations!

The beauty of jazz dance is that it’s always morphing and changing along with the times. From the explorative, isolated movement of the 1960s, to the convention and disco trends of the 1970s, to the Jazzercise phenomenon of the 1980s, there is always something that makes jazz dance stand out. Colin says,

“One of the current trends I really appreciate right now is the emphasis on athleticism. I feel like strength and power have really been brought to the forefront of jazz (and all forms of dance for that matter) in the last few years.”

Choreographers that showcase strength in their dancers can be assured that their efforts are noticed! Cross training, whether done in class or outside of class, is important for jazz dancers to build strength and stamina for their routines. A trend Courtney appreciates is the marriage of multiple genres in jazz: “There is a contemporary vibe to many jazz dances these days and a lot of fusion of genres. If this is done correctly, [combining] the perfect blend of jazz elements with an updated, current vision, I usually love it!” However, these IDA judges agree that the presentation of a complete, understandable package is key to a winning routine. “When a dancer comes out in the jazz category, and dances to a classic jazz song but has on one half-sole ‘turner’, it completely changes the look of the piece. Consistency in style, music, and look really matter to me in the jazz category,” says Lesley. Choreographers should not be afraid to take risks in jazz routines, but should be mindful of presenting a clean, unified concept.

As time passes, dance styles become more varied and less stringent in their rules. A hot topic in the competition world is the difference between jazz and contemporary. Lesley says,

“Because contemporary is an off-shoot of classical ballet, contemporary movement utilizes elements of classical ballet technique, such as épaulement, turned out leg positions, and initiation of upper body movement from the back. In a contemporary routine, I expect to see an understanding of foundational ballet technique first and foremost.” Contemporary dance borrows from jazz dance as well, and oftentimes the line between the two is muddy. Especially in the dance competition realm, it is important for category placement to understand the difference between jazz and contemporary. Colin’s opinion is that “jazz dance literally came as a response to the specific style of jazz music. Jazz dance almost always has a strong and clear connection between music and movement. Contemporary, on the other hand…could stand alone, separate from the music. While musicality is still important [in contemporary], I feel like the direct relationship is lessened.” Similarly, Courtney agrees that music can be helpful in determining what style is actually being presented.

“I think song choice helps separate the two styles of jazz and contemporary but also, choice of movement. I'm looking for clean lines, solid technique and nothing too ‘out of the ordinary’ for jazz. I am also looking for correct execution for all leaps, jumps, turns. In contemporary, you are given more artistic freedom!”

IDA judges agree that there is nothing more frustrating than seeing a Contemporary number in the Jazz category. Resist the temptation to enter a contemporary routine in the jazz category simply because you already have another contemporary routine and need an additional category in which to compete.

Another important element of jazz dance is style. Jazz dance has so many influential founders, and each one imparted a specific style that has morphed into what we now understand as jazz dance. Early examples include Luigi, Matt Mattox, Gus Giordano, and Bob Fosse. We have the incomparable Luigi to thank for the idea of pushing down to go up; Matt Mattox for the freestyle aspect of jazz, which eventually morphed into lyrical; Gus Giordano for our jazz port de bras warm ups; and Bob Fosse for the inverted hip and knee positions. “When learning a specific style,” Colin says, “there is an overall [look] that is inherent to the choreography and can/should be taught. I love when a dancer has such a specific style, that they could be doing the dance in complete silhouette, and you would know just who it is. Style takes the vocabulary of a dance and turns it into the dancer’s own interpretation.” Courtney and Lesley agree that technique plays a big part in developing style.

“I always joke that technique IS my style,” says Lesley. “Being able to adapt to different styles quickly is only possible through good technique.”

Courtney agrees, “If you have a strong technical foundation to back up your jazz, your style will naturally shine through. They go hand in hand like best friends!”

When asked about their favorite examples of influential jazz choreography, Courtney and Colin both pointed out the work of Bob Fosse. Colin raved, “He took his shortcomings and turned them into an entire sub style. It's athletic, cool, sexy, mysterious and wild. All things that make up exciting performances! My favorite representation is Mexican Breakfast: Bob Fosse - Mexican Breakfast.” Lesley brought up a more recent and commercialized example of jazz dance, Paula Abdul’s performances from the 1990 American Music Awards: Paula Abdul American Music Awards Performance. “The isolations, precision, and use of accents are pure jazz to me, and I can only dream about what it must have been like to dance during that exciting time, when music videos were king and jazz dance had a real place in the commercial world.”

Dance in general has become more mainstream lately, and jazz dance in particular continues to find its place in advertising, movies, the theatre world, and beyond. Because we live in an era when information is so readily available, and because jazz dance is a relatively recent style of dance, we at Impact Dance Adjudicators encourage all dance enthusiasts to do your research to help pass on the styles and techniques of jazz dance’s forefathers!


For more information about the history of jazz dance and the dancers mentioned in this blog, please visit

*Photo provided by Elite Performance Challenge/Melissa Amershek

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