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Keeping Jazz Dance Alive in Studio and On Stage

Check out our podcast episode on this hot topic! Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts & Spotify!

Photo: Elevate Dance Academy - Portland, OR

It’s no secret that contemporary and lyrical rule the current competition scene. But what about Jazz dance? This uniquely American form is often present in dance training, especially from a young age, but it seems to be dying out on stage. This week, Courtney and Lesley sat down with Jazz educators and experts Mary Roberts and Terrill Mitchell to discuss teaching, training, and choreographing Jazz dance.

Jazz dance has a rich history that spans many years and styles. Born out of African diasporic forms, Jazz dance ultimately influences almost everything we do in the American entertainment industry. It is a culture and it’s also a celebration of human movement. So while it’s critical to know the pioneers of the form, Mary notes that it’s also hard to pinpoint a finite list since there’s such a vast tree of lineage. Many people have influenced jazz dance over time in various ways, from classic Jazz to theater Jazz, to social dance forms. Terrill also explains that it’s crucial to incorporate African Jazz movements for all dancers throughout their training.

In terms of the history of Jazz and its disappearance from the competitive stage, Mary posits,

“It’s easier to shove Jazz dance off to the side than to deal with its difficult history.”

But the history of the form mirrors our nation’s history, making it a hugely important aspect of American culture. To learn more, all four educators highly recommend watching Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, which highlights many of these concepts, especially the history and evolution of Jazz dance.

So what are judges looking for when it comes to Jazz routines on stage and how should teachers approach their Jazz classes? First, it’s all about style, grounded-ness, isolations, and weight transfers. Terrill notes that a strong foundation starts with the warm-up and that many young dancers right now aren’t ‘dancing’ their warm-ups...they’re just going through the motions. The warm-up should feel like a combination, as opposed to a series of exercises. He also changes his warm-up frequently and doesn’t necessarily use popular music that his students recognize. When it comes to progressions, he also flags the importance of pas de bourrée combinations. ”In classical jazz technique, in my opinion, there shouldn't be one class where there isn’t a pas de bourrée exercise. It needs to be the norm.”

These combinations, with added direction changes, turning pas de bourrées, pirouettes, and other elements, allow for transitions and weight shifts that are critical to mastering the form. All four educators note that kids today often struggle with pivot turns at age 16 but those same kids did them perfectly at age six. This lapse is the result of advancing too quickly and too far with the tricks when what matters most are the basics. As Courtney explains, if a dancer can’t do clean pas de bourrées but can do a double leg catch turn, the leg catch turn doesn’t really matter or impress anyone. Every child training in dance should know the following steps by the time they reach seven or eight years old: step touch, lindy, kick ball change, grapevine, pivot turn, and single pirouette. These are Jazz basics and should appear in every beginner--and advanced--jazz dance! The same elements can be layered and stylized further at the advanced level but should still be present. It’s also critical to incorporate poly-rhythmic elements, hip movements, and other isolations.

Mary also brings up the importance of terminology in Jazz dance. For example, in Jazz, what’s called a "pas de bourrée" is a "triple step" in hip hop. This shift in language helps with differentiation and approach and also provides better access to students who might not necessarily know the French terminology that we borrow from ballet.

Overall, dancers need to learn how to shift from lyrical and contemporary to be more versatile when it comes to style and grounding. Judges also notice a lack of musicality when it comes to Jazz dance, and it’s important that teachers train this musicality from the moment the students walk in the door, which harkens back to Terrill’s emphasis on the warm-up.

Mary closes out with her favorite quote, “Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can,” as a reminder of a great approach for all dancers and educators when it comes to Jazz dance. Be sure to listen to the full episode for great insights, tips, and tricks for keeping Jazz dance education alive.

Photo: Elevate Dance Academy - Portland, OR

Thanks to our guests, Mary Roberts and Terrill Mitchell, for joining us on the podcast this week! You can follow them at @msmaryroberts and @tmitchell227.


Maddie Kurtz is an IDA staff writer/admin, choreographer, judge, and dance educator. Check out her other articles on the IDA Blog, visit her website, and follow her @maddiekurtz92.

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