Jazz Dance Traditions

Two quintessentially American dance forms, jazz and tap came to Chicago in the early 20th century, when the Great Migration of southern African Americans to cities in the north led to an explosion of African American talent. Jazz music thrived in South Side clubs like the Savoy Ballroom, where black Chicagoans flocked to dance.

An ever-changing hybrid, jazz dance was born out of the meeting of African American vernacular dance with ballet, musical theater, and social dance styles from the Charleston to the Frug. Like its namesake music, jazz has proven to be an enduring form of creative expression, at turns sensual, lyrical, and percussive. What we now know as tap dance evolved as a reaction to the forbidding of African drumming by early American slaveholders. Enslaved Africans adapted their traditional dances to clearly reflect drum rhythms into a style of syncopated, percussive dancing. With the dawn of minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, tap evolved from elements of Irish jigs and clog dancing, flat footing, and other step dance forms. It became a popular theatrical form along with soft-shoe and jazz.

A genre-defining tap dancer, Chicago’s Jimmy Payne is credited with keeping tap’s vaudeville roots alive. His Afro-Cuban themed "Calypso Carnival" packed in the crowds at the Blue Angel on Rush Street in the 1940s, and he went on to train generations of tap dancers through his Jimmy Payne School of Dance. His son, Jimmy Payne, Jr., picked up the torch after his father’s death in 2000, performing as part of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and teaching at Columbia College Chicago.

Another internationally recognized tap artist, Lane Alexander has also been a driving force in the vitality of the Chicago tap scene. With the late Kelly Michaels, Alexander co-founded the above-mentioned Chicago Human Rhythm Project, a performance, education, and outreach group that now hosts the oldest summer tap festival in the world.

Gus Giordano, a legendary figure in contemporary jazz dance, opened his namesake studio in Evanston in 1953. Today Giordano’s sleek sinuous technique, as embodied by his company, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, is considered a defining element of modern jazz. Now under the direction of Giordano’s daughter, Nan, the company also hosts the annual Jazz Dance World Congress, an international gathering celebrating jazz dance, every summer.

Broadway show dancer Lou Conte opened his own studio in 1974, teaching tap, ballet, and jazz, and the students from these classes formed the core of what would become Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Though HSDC has grown to become one of the city’s most high-profile modern dance companies, it began as a jazz ensemble and its athletic, eclectic repertoire remains grounded in the jazz tradition, showcasing work by Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp.

Other Chicago jazz companies include River North Chicago Dance Company, Joel Hall Dancers, and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. Each takes the hybrid, fluid nature of jazz in a distinctive direction. River North is a contemporary repertory company with roots in jazz and ballet that frequently incorporates Latin themes and music. Joel Hall celebrates multiculturalism through a blend of jazz, ballet, modern, and "street" dance styles. Jump Rhythm Jazz founder Billy Siegenfeld has developed his own signature technique that harnesses the expressive power of rhythm and percussion to encourage a "full-bodied" approach to dancing.

And, of course, rhythm and percussion are the driving force behind the contemporary tap explosion, which shares the improvisatory traditions of jazz music, rap, and spoken word poetry. It is grounded in precise technique but full of explosive, expressive potential.

Thanks to dancers such as tap superstar Savion Glover, tap is more popular, accessible, and relevant than ever. Locally, Chicago Tap Theatre focuses on storytelling, with works such as "Little Dead Riding Hood," a retelling of the tale of Red Riding Hood through tap. The exuberant M.A.D.D. Rhythms channels tap’s percussive power to connect with young dancers and encourage both discipline and creativity.

Just as the styles we now call jazz and tap were once vernacular forms, today new generations of dancers across Chicago are inspired by the energy of street dance to hone the latest, uniquely American form: hip-hop. Young teaching companies such as Culture Shock Dance Troupe and Fusion Dance Company celebrate the connections between dance and urban culture—paving the way for the next phase in the ever-changing definition of jazz and tap.