Historians generally agree that jazz as a musical form was born in the early 20th century, most likely New Orleans. Around 1902, African American folk and vernacular music began to swing through what is often called triple-based rhythm described as "hot" and "bluesy" with jagged rhythms and vocal humanlike sounds emitting from instruments. Shortly thereafter, dance done to this new music would also be called "jazz".
Thanks to a social dance boom to the new jazz music around 1910, dance once seen primarily in after-hours joints or "jook houses" and brothels moved into ballrooms. Group dance forms gave way to partner dances, and animal dances such as Turkey Trot and Bunny Hug became a rage along with the hip isolations of Snake Hips. The Texas Tommy, the Breakaway emphasized the connection where the couples broke close body contact but kept contact with both hands, improvising steps of their choice.
The HEART and SOUL of jazz dance crystallized between the 1920s and 1940s. New dances were known to emerge from earlier African American dances through experimentation, extension and creative development. The Charleston, both a social and theatrical stage dance was highly syncopated and retained the patting of the knees with the hands crossing over each other from an earlier dance called Patting Juba. Previous New York City-based theatrical shows such as Darktown Follies (1911) featured the Cakewalk, Ballin' the Jack, and the Texas Tommy and would serve as an inspiration for future musicals. Jazz social dances of this era were serving as a choreographing source material for stage performance while jazz tap, an evolution of the early sand and tap dances, showed increased sophistication in its use of swing and complex rhythms.
In the 1930s, jazz swing style music and dance were at their peak. Harlem in New York City was at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and it was the Savoy Ballroom on Lennox Avenue between 140 and 141 streets where black musicians and dancers converged and defined a period: music and dance at the Savoy drew attention to the fact that the tradition of black music and dance forms were interrelated, and together were responsible for the swing phenomenon.
Legendary jazz orchestras and artists such as Duke Ellington, Fess Williams, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Chick Webb, Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway were playing at the Savoy, mutually fueling the dancers for the development of new jazz social dances. At the Savoy Ballroom, the Lindy Hop was born, with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Leon James and others. Other jazz social dances and dance steps developed alongside the Lindy, such as the Big Apple, Shorty George, and Suzie Q, the majority of them Savoy originated. Creative movement ideas originated in in the vernacular and social jazz dances, arose from the rhythmic impulse of swinging jazz music, and were also embellished for the performance stage by the artists such as Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, Jeni LeGon, and the Condos Brothers appearing at New York clubs such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. A similar phenomenon was evolving with the Lindy Hop dancers: Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were performing in clubs, films, on Broadway, and in concert halls including Radio City Music Hall. Frankie Manning is credited with the first Lindy aerial move around 1935-36 and for creating ensemble dancing for the professional Lindy Hop dance teams. Norma Miller credits Herbert "Whitey" White with creating the first choreographed Lindy routines, including the first for the performance stage.
Mura Dehn, a Russian emigré, arrived in America in 1930 to study and research dance and she focused on the jazz in Harlem. Subsequently, she founded the Academy of Jazz dedicated to the research, teaching and performance of the jazz dance. In Dehn's words, early American jazz expression was inclusive of all interpretations of modern jazz we are familiar with… ragtime, trucking, swing, boogie-woogie. Dehn would later create a landmark documentary in 1950, THE SPIRIT MOVES, that captured not only these early jazz traditions but jazz dance performed to the upcoming stylistic innovation in jazz music, bebop, by dancers such as Clarence "Scoby" Strohman, Jeff Asquiew, Leory Appins, and Milton "Okay" Hayes.
(materials by Jill Flanders Crosby and Michelle Moss, Marshall and Jean Stearns)