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More Than Movement Dance Education: Jazz Dance

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Welcome to our first ever More Than Movement Dance Education spotlight! These spotlights are dedicated to sharing the history and culture of various Black dance forms. We specifically aim to spotlight dance forms that are historically appropriated and set the record straight about where so many of these beautiful dance forms come from!

Have a dance form you would like to see spotlighted next? Let us know at!


What is Jazz Dance?

More Than Movement Dance Education, JAZZ DANCE

Jazz dance is a social dance rooted in African culture and comes from Black and Brown communities. The dance form has an ever-changing nature aligned with society and its people.

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1500's-1800's), slave owners removed the Africans' instruments to take away any forms of communication. Instead, Africans learned to generate rhythms utilizing their bodies.

A lot of the music and movement in Jazz today is influenced and inspired by the African communities who had to create their movement and sound.


History of Jazz Dance

As told by our Rae Studio Jazz Instructors, Brenda Palaby and JJ Ghera

"A Quick Talk on the History of Jazz" by Brenda Palaby

"Timeline of Jazz" by JJ Ghera


An Incomplete List of Black

Pioneers of Jazz Dance

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Slide 1: William Henry Lane (1825-1853) - Also known as Master Juba & Boz's Juba - Incorporated elements of the Irish Jig with movements rooted in African Dance - Considered the originator of tap dance
Slide 2: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949) - In 1907, performed solo despite the "two-colored" rule which did not allow Black performers to perform alone - In 1940, became the first Black performer to headline with an all-White cast - Became highest-paid Black performer in the first half of the 20th century
Slide 3: Josephine Baker (1906-1975) - At age 15, went to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club - Known for her rendition of the Charleston & improvisations which often featured swinging arms, low kicks & quick steps - Worked for the NAACP & in 1963, spoke at the March on Washington alongside MLK as the only female speaker
Slide 4: Pepsi Bethel (1918-2002) - Perfected the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York - Known for acrobatic moves during the Lindy Hop where he would toss his partner - Highlighted the importance of Black dance forms which were often being dismissed as mere “entertainment” and insisted on the validity of the African American domestic tradition

A Brief Summary of

Race History of Jazz Dance

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Slide 1: Jazz dance has a complicated racial history. In the 19th century, White Americans would appropriate Jazz Dance by putting on Minstrel and Vaudeville shows essentially mocking the enslaved.
Slide 2: Fast forward to the 1920s & 30s, in New York City, a large influx of Black families moved to the Harlem neighborhood where increasing Black pride kickstarted a period of creative exploration known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Slide 3: White audiences began visiting Harlem to be entertained by dancers like Josephine Baker and Pepsi Bethel. This eventually paved way for White dancers like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, and Luigi to shift Jazz Dance from a social dance to a performance.
Slide 4: Although personality and individual style were a vital part of Jazz’s initial culture, professional Jazz dancers were now tasked to perform more precise versions of Jazz dances and balance uniformity and personality.
Slide 5: Appreciate > Appropriate: Jazz dance is an ever-changing dance form. So it is crucial as dancers to do our part to learn the rich history and culture to better understand how Jazz dance developed into what it is today.
Slide 6: Learn the history; Invest in teachers who are knowledgeable in the history and culture of Jazz dance; Invest in teachers who advocate for Black and Brown culture

Organizations and Artists That Advocate for Jazz Dance

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Frankie Manning Foundation: Goals of the foundation include carrying on the work and the spirit of Frankie Manning in spreading the culture and joy of the Lindy Hop and advocating for Black Lindy Hoppers to be welcomed, valued, well respected, and well represented in the global Lindy Hop community.
Jazz Is.... Dance Project: Inspired by the democratic nature of jazz music, Jazz Is… Dance Project values improvisation, stylization, and humanity in jazz dance. Honoring the roots and fruits of jazz in the classroom, in the studio, and on stage, the Project seeks to widen the palate and visibility of jazz dance.
Melanie George: George's mission is to deconstruct traditional hierarchies in dance by centering the West African roots of jazz dance via the historically-informed technique, Neo-Jazz. Melanie founded Jazz Is… Dance Project, an organization dedicated to the dissemination of jazz dance education, choreography, performance, and scholarship.
Laura Ann Smyth: Smyth believes that dance has the rhetorical power to champion social justice and has dedicated her life and career to inspire change through the arts. "Understanding that jazz history is in fact race history and the idea that its systematic undervaluing goes hand in hand with racial tension in this country has been a great realization. Forcing populations to look at dance through a non westernized lens...has certainly been a devotion of mine."

Resource List

Interested to learn more about Jazz Dance? Visit our living resource document which we are continuously updating with more resources on different dance forms!


Special Thanks!

Thank you Brenda Palaby and JJ Ghera for collaborating with the More Than Movement committee on the Jazz Dance Spotlight! Your extensive knowledge of Jazz Dance and its roots is deeply appreciated!

Follow both their dance journeys on Instagram!


Learn More About More Than Movement

If you have any questions or comments regarding our More Than Movement program or have any resources you’d like to share, please email our More Than Movement Committee leads, Lexi and Kristie at

Please continue to follow this page, our Rae Studios newsletter, and on social media for upcoming events, workshops, speaker series, panels, performances, materials for dance educators, and more. We look forward to growing as artists and community leaders that will show the world that what we do is #morethanmovement.


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