By Karla Grotting
Jazz music has been around for over 100 years, beginning as a fusion of its root forms: the blues, black spirituals and ragtime. The seed, of course, is African; planted in harsh American soil and the experience of African captives and their descendants. Jazz tells the story of race in America and jazz retains many African elements that survive in the form.
Jazz was born in America and could have only been born in America because of the condition of both slavery and of freed people of color. In America, African musical elements meet European musical ideas and the pot stirs. When New Orleans musician, Buddy Bolden begins to play the sound and phrasing of the black spirituals on his military marching band trumpet, leftover from the Civil War, the jazz is born. His sound contains the blues tuning and the rhythmic syncopation of Africa, all in the sound of his European instrument.
Jazz dance must look to jazz music and jazz musicians to understand how to dance to it, to reflect it, to find its depth and its facility for communication. In the same way, jazz dance looks to its African dance roots to find its stance, its buoyancy, the Moye (the circular energy going into and pulling out of the floor) and the ability to hold a sense of rhythm and groove in multiple parts of the body.
In European forms, like ballet, the legs, spine and arms do all the talking. In jazz dance, as in African dance, the expression is much more democratic, holding rhythms in the head, shoulders, rib cage, hips, feet and hands. Ballet ideals keep an upright spine with the chest lifted, striving for weightless and perfection of line, whereas jazz gives into gravity, feeling the buoyancy of the weighted pelvis cycling energy into and back out of the floor.
Jazz dancers strive to feel grounded; feeling a relaxation in the legs that allows the foot pushing into the floor to communicate with the pelvis and drive the dancer like a low riding sports car, agile, responsive and able to change direction quickly and freely.
It all comes together in jazz. The grounding, the sense of gravity and the ability to hold the groove in many parts of the body, like a drummer using all parts of his kit- the bass drum, the snare, the tom, the hi-hat, the cymbal. Jazz dancers thrive on jazz music and become like jazz musicians themselves as they deepen their understanding, articulation and commitment to the jazz way.