The earliest roots of jazz dance stem from African culture. In Africa, dances are performed to celebrate the cycles of life: birth, puberty, marriage and death. Dance is an expression of cultural beliefs for African children, adults and the elderly. African dance involves the use of musical instruments such as drums, string instruments, bells, reed pipes and various percussion instruments.
Africans taken to America as slaves continued to express themselves through dance. The European background of the plantation owners has influenced the dance, even though it is still based on African traditions, to change. From 1805 to 1880, the slaves were allowed to express themselves through Native American dance in New Orleans’ Congo Square. This is because their French and Spanish Catholic owners believed that giving the slaves the opportunity to dance under supervision would make the slaves happier and prevent them from rebellion and from performing secret voodoo dances.
Caucasians began to intensify their faces and imitate slave dancers in the 19th century. John Durang, one of America’s first professional dancers, described some of his performances as containing a movement of slave dancers called ‘shuffles’. The first international jazz dance to imitate slave dancers was ‘Jump Jim Crow’, performed in 1828 by Thomas Rice. ‘Jump Jim Crow’ copied the movement of a paralyzed slave and became the basis of an era of American entertainment based on an immortal stereotyping of a dancing slave.
The Minstrel show was another major influence on American jazz dance. The Minstrel show was popular from 1845 to 1900 and consisted of comic sketches, various actions, dance and music performed by white people who darkened their faces to look black. The minstrel show was performed by a group of up to 50 artists who portrayed black people as ignorant, lazy, superstitious, joyful and musical. Minstrel shows lasted as professional entertainment until 1910. Colleges, fraternities and local theaters continued to present amateur minstrel performances until the 1960s. When the civilian movement began and African Americans gained more political power, minstrel shows lost popularity.
Since the 1920s, jazz dance has been an ever-evolving form of popular and artistic performance. The 1940s was a time of revolution for jazz dance. Study instruction for jazz dance required as much as classical ballet. Jazz then began appearing in vaudeville acts, Broadway shows and musicals. Modern jazz has been developed by the choreographer of dance masters such as Bob Fosse, whose work is imitated in jazz dance shows such as ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’. The history of jazz dance began in Africa. Jazz dance has changed, as has popular culture, over the decades. Individuality and improvisation are critical components of dance, which has made it possible to continue to develop over time. African slaves inspired their owners and other Caucasians to add their contributions to dance, which has now become a type of art taught in studios and performed in Broadway programs and other musicals.