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The origin of jazz dance can be traced all the way back to Africa. In Africa, it was custom for natives to dance as a celebration of cycles in life such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. This was to express their cultural beliefs. Drums, string instruments, chimes, reedpipes, and other percussion instruments set the beat for the dancers. When slaves were brought to America they continued to interpret life through dance. However, their dances, while based of the traditions of Africa, were influenced by the European background of the plantation owners, so the dances changed. In 1817, New Orleans set aside an area of parkland called Congo Square for African dance and informal music improvisation. That was seed ground for many jazz musicians and performers and served as an important early venue for one of New Orleans’ most famous exports, the wholly American art form called jazz. But the dancing continued to evolve, mostly settling into a vibrant style known as jazz dance that we now label tap. 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.
Jazz dance paralleled the birth and spread of jazz itself from roots in black American society and was popularized in ballrooms by the big bands of the swing era. 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. In both early dances and 20th-century jazz dances, there is a noticeable continuity of dance elements and motions. The eagle rock and the slow drag as well as the Charleston and the jitterbug have elements in common with certain Caribbean and African dances. In addition, the slow drag contributed to the fish of the 1950s; the ring shout, which survived from the 18th into the 20th century, in isolated areas, influenced the cakewalk.
About 1900 the cakewalk, popularized through stage shows, became a craze in European and American ballrooms. In its wake appeared other social dances such as the Charleston, the jitterbug, the twist, Black Bottom, Boogie Woogie, Swing, Lindy Hop and disco dancing. Some, like the fox-trot, borrowed European dance steps and fitted them to jazz rhythms. The growth of radio, television, and recording, which popularized black music among wide audiences, greatly aided the diffusion of these dances. Fusing ballet with jazz has led in recent years to the formation of such troupes as Canada’s Les Ballets Jazz.
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