Jazz Dance History in America

as researched by Bob Boross

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PIONEERS OF JAZZ DANCE TECHNIQUES

Mahoney cites the early 1950s as when the theatrical jazz dance craze hit New York. The primary teachers were Peter Gennaro, Jon Gregory, and Katherine Dunham. Gennaro's style was "light, quick, loose, and flexible ... with a warm-up at the barre, with plies and various ballet based leg exercises". Gregory had a limited dance background, and began his class with a series of arm gestures and across the floor movements, and rapidly progressed to a set combination of "spectacular leaps and falls that burst out of unorthodox spins". Katherine Dunham operated a school in New York from 1944 to 1954 (closing because of financial difficulties). Her classes were accompanied by conga drumming and involved step patterns across the floor that included isolated movements of the shoulder and hips. Although her technique is one that trains the body in an organic, well-planned fashion, she was considered a modern dancer and her style would appear to be too ethnic to appeal to the emerging Broadway theatrical jazz championed by Fosse, Robbins, and Michael Kidd (choreographer of Guys and Dolls).

In 1955, two teachers emerged who formalized theatrical jazz dance training in New York, Matt Mattox and Luigi. Mattox had taught for Eugene Loring's School of American Dance in the early 1950s, and then began teaching "everything I knew from Jack Cole" at New York's Showcase Studios. His classes were strict, demanding, and inspiring. Nat Horne, a veteran of sixteen Broadway shows, remembers his first exposure to a Mattox class.

"It was an open studio at the time, so I just walked down the hall and I looked into the door and there was a man beating a drum and these students were doing isolations and it fascinated me...I said 'My God, this is great because this is not only just dancing, it's also a structuring of the body and a way to learn about the body'...They were doing all these things that were so controlled, and when he demonstrated he did it so cleanly and expertly..."

Mattox's exercises worked on acquiring the ability to isolate movement of body parts while training the body in a systematic progression - as in the structure of a ballet class.

Eugene Facciuto, who is known simply as "Luigi," was an aspiring dancer who suffered a near fatal car accident that left him paralyzed on his right side. He developed a series of dance exercises as rehabilitation, and they became the basis for his technique. The Luigi style visually recalls the fluid, lyrical quality of ballet, and emphasizes "the line of the body with arms lifted, chest high, and head thrown back". Jean Sabatine feels that "the main thought behind Luigi's technique is that the body should look beautiful at all times".

Two other teachers noteworthy for developing their theatrical jazz dance techniques after careers in modern dance are Ruth Walton and Gus Giordano. Walton was "influenced by Martha Graham and much interested in tap and primitive". She prefers to call her style "modern jazz dance", and is the author of
A Ruth Walton Course In Modern Jazz Dance. Giordano was a student of Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais, but he also lists the clean balletic style of Jerome Robbins as an influence. To Giordano, "the jazz dance form is movement ... that starts in the stomach or solar plexus and creates a mood." His classes aim to "create a regal look in the torso and head" and his technique "incorporates the relaxing study of basic Yoga". After warm-up exercises, Giordano asks for barre exercises, isolation exercises, and jazz walks across the floor.