The Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Dance

Origins of Jazz Dance

The origins of Jazz dance are found in the simultaneous rhythms and improvisation brought to America by the African slaves around the 17th century. By the 19th century, talented dancers were migrating from Europe to America and bringing along Celtic as well as their own African influences, including their rich culture of sacred and celebratory traditional dances.

Beginning in the 1930s Jazz dance blossomed simultaneously with Dixieland music and the jazz scene in New Orleans. From the 1960s until the turn of the century the jazz dance style continued to evolve, reflecting the changing musical influences of Rock & Roll and Broadway and film musicals.

Today Jazz dance is an umbrella term that incorporates several different styles of and is considered a uniquely American creation.

Progressive Dance Studio is committed to fostering the love of dance and the performing arts in our students and that starts by focusing on developing each student’s individual talents, self-confidence and self-esteem in a safe, non-competitive environment.  Although we offer a wide variety of dance and other performing art classes, below is a brief overview of the most popular dance styles that PDS focuses on to educate the beginning dancer.

We offer all new students the opportunity to sign-up for a Free Trial Classes and find the classes best for them.

What is Jazz Dance?

Today, jazz dance incorporates a blend of dance styles that makes it difficult to define. People enjoy watching jazz dancers because the dance moves and techniques are fun and energetic. We know jazz dance when we see it, but it’s difficult to explain.

Jazz showcases a dancer’s creativity and individuality and allows the dancers to interpret and execute moves and steps in their own way. To excel in jazz, dancers need a strong background in ballet, as it requires grace, balance, and stamina.

On today’s Jazz dance scene, there are six different dance styles that you’ll see, but be on the lookout, because as jazz dance evolves, a new jazz style will likely emerge.

6 Jazz Dance styles currently being performed include:

1. Classical Jazz: Classical Jazz is performed from the core, with clean and strong lines that come from the hips and chest. It is essential to take ballet because Jazz Dance is strongly based on Ballet technique.

2. Contemporary Jazz: Contemporary Jazz challenges the rules and foundations of classical jazz by adding ordinary movements, strong story lines, creativity and individuality. Contemporary jazz has become well known because of shows like So You Think You Can Dance.

3. Commercial Jazz: Commercial Jazz is a blend of hip hop, jazz and the latest dance steps, choreographed to pop songs. Commercial jazz often includes more “tricks.”

4. Latin Jazz: Latin Jazz is a style that allows a dancer to use the movements of various Latin dance styles without the assistance of a partner by adding elements of jazz. Latin jazz has an emphasis on the movement of hips and isolations.

5. Afro-Jazz: Afro-Jazz is a fusion of African dance with the technical elements of jazz.

6. Street-Jazz: Street-Jazz is a mixture of street dance and jazz.

Classicial Jazz Dance

Jerome Robbins, Choreography, West Side Story

Jazz Steps and Terms for Beginners

As with all dance styles, to help new students start dance classes with confidence we have highlighted some important jazz steps and common terms first-time Jazz students will need to know. 

Ball Change: A ball change is a change of weight distribution on the balls of the feet. This is a popular transition step in many jazz dance routines

.• Chassé: Taken from the ballet tradition, a chassé step resembles a galloping motion, and is literally a “chasing” step. This is often used in jazz dance terminology to describe the way a dancer travels across the stage, putting two moves together.

Contraction:  A contraction is accomplished by a dancer contracting the torso, with the back curved outward and the pelvis pulled forward, thus making a C-shape with her core. 

Fan Kick: The body stays in place while one leg starts inward and kicks all the way around to its original position. These are often used in kick lines and Broadway-style dance routines. 

Grounded movement: dancers keep a low center of gravity, and often bend their knees• Isolation: Learning to isolate one body part at a time. A dancer isolates one specific part of her body, such as her rib cage or wrist.  One of the key skills for any jazz dancer is the ability to move body parts individually. 

Jazz Square:  An iconic move, the Jazz Square consists of a few basic walking steps, but done in this particular order:  Step forward on the right or left foot, Cross the other foot over the first foot, Step back with the first foot, Bring the feet side by side.  A jazz square is often done with some attitude in the upper body, accenting the motion. 

Jazz Walk:  The “jazz walk” is a signature step in jazz dancing. Jazz walks can be performed in many different styles, where the improvisation element of jazz shines through. One of the key defining features of jazz, both in music and dance, is the room for individuality. Every dancer’s jazz walk is different. Posture is low, and feet slightly drag across the floor in this modified walk used for traveling across the stage. Variations of the jazz walk include the jazz run and jazz drag.

• Pivot Step: One foot steps in front of the other, and then the body pivots around back into the original position.

Syncopation:  Accenting an offbeat or note of the music that surprises the audience. 

Classical Jazz Dance

Bob Fosse, Original Broadway Production – “Sing, Sing, Sing” 

Jazz Classes at Progressive Dance Studio

At Progressive Dance Studio (PDS), our thriving Jazz dance program offers more than 10 different Jazz dance  classes that starts with Pre-Jazz for kids ages 6-7 and continues through Pre-Teen and Teen Jazz for ages 12 & up, as well as additional Jazz classes through audition only.

The Jazz classes that PDS currently offers include: 

  • Pre-Jazz & Tap  Ages 6-7
  • Jazz 1  Ages 7-9
  • Jazz Ages 8-11
  • Jazz 2  Ages 8-11
  • Pre-Teen Jazz Ages 9-12
  • Jazz Ages 12 & up
  • Pre-Teen Jazz  Ages 9-12 
  • Teen Jazz  Ages 13 & up 
  • Jumps & Turns  Ages 9-12
  • Jumps, Leaps & Turns Ages 8 & up

Jazz Dancewear

A Jazz dancer needs clothing that allows you to move. The dancer’s body lines need to be visible. Although tights and leotards are fine, most jazz dancers prefer to wear jazz or dance pants. Tops usually worn for jazz include form-fitting tank tops, T-shirts, or leotards. Jazz clothes should be fitted. Much of Jazz involves turns and quick movements so the clothing shouldn’t be distracting or be loose enough to get tangled. 

At Progressive Dance Studio, the dress code for our jazz classes include a leotard, tights, and booty shorts.

Jazz Footwear – Shoes and Sneakers

There is such diversity of footwear in Jazz classes (bare feet, half socks, ordinary socks, and of course, Jazz shoes). However, for a beginner’s jazz dance class, it is important to wear something on your feet.  At Progressive Dance Studio, as part of our dress code, we require jazz shoes.

Street Jazz Dance

Brian Friedman Choreography

For information about other dance styles see our post The Beginner’s Guide to Dance.

If you have questions or would like to take a tour of Progressive Dance Studio located in Englewood, NJ call our front desk at (201) 894-1333 we’re happy to help!

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