Watch the beginning of nearly any jazz class and you’ll probably see dancers moving their hips or ribs to the beat of the music. They’re doing isolations, which are movements that involve only one part of the body while the other parts remain still. Dancers most often isolate their heads, shoulders, hands, ribs or hips.
According to jazz instructor and DS advisory board member Bob Rizzo, isolations emerged in the 1940s and ’50s during the birth of jazz dance. At the time, Hollywood and Broadway choreographer Jack Cole was developing a style that borrowed elements from modern, East Indian, Latin and Afro-Haitian dance styles—all of which feature isolations. Matt Mattox, one of Cole’s students, helped outline jazz technique. According to Rizzo, Mattox created a stricter discipline with a very long, set warm-up, in which isolations were a recurring theme.
Today, isolations are generally associated with another of Cole’s contemporaries: Bob Fosse. “In the 1960s and ’70s, Fosse took elements of Cole’s technique and infused his own style,” Rizzo says. Fosse made isolations sizzle with sensuality. During this time, the isolation became more and more popular, and by the 1980s you could find them in almost any jazz class.
You may think of isolations as simple warm-up moves, but they’re an important skill to master—not only for jazz dancers, but also for dancers in nearly any style. DS chatted with dancers and choreographers who specialize in hip hop, ballet, precision dance and contemporary dance about why jazz isolations are so vital.
Sidra Bell, choreographer and artistic director of Sidra Bell Dance New York, says isolations teach dancers how to use specific body parts, which they can then combine in complex ways. “A contemporary dancer must to be able to do one action with one part of the body and a totally different movement with a different part of the body,” Bell says. For example, a dancer might circle her hips while raising her shoulders. “Being able to coordinate different actions together comes from the ability to isolate.”
If you dream of joining the Rockettes, brush up on your isolations. “Isolation is what gives you precision,” says Jacki Ford, former Rockette and the “Jax” half of Jo+Jax dancewear. When you’re in a line of 36 dancers in a massive theater like Radio City Music Hall, every little detail on each dancer has to match—down to your hands, fingers and even where you’re looking. “Isolations help you learn that specificity and how to keep the rest of the body still.”
“Isolations are the backbone of what I do,” says Chadd Smith, also known as Madd Chadd, a member of the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD). Chadd, who specializes in robotic popping, says isolations are crucial for hip-hop dancers because they teach control. When isolations are taken to the extreme, as in Chadd’s mechanical style, they make dancers look almost superhuman. “It really catches the eye because it looks like you’re seeing something that’s not possible.”
Barette Vance, a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, studied jazz before she began training at the School of American Ballet. She says mastering isolations has helped her thrive in contemporary ballets like Robert Weiss’ Messiah, Matthew Neenan’s As It’s Going and Val Caniparoli’s African dance-inspired Lambarena. “In classical works, you’re very upright and your body moves as one,” Vance says. “In contemporary ballets, the movement is more isolated. You might move your hips and then your ribs.” Having that versatility, Vance says, is particularly helpful for ballet dancers who want to work with a variety of choreographers.
Tips from the Pros
“When isolating the head, be careful not to tip your head back more than two inches, to avoid straining the cervical vertebrae. Keep your shoulders square when isolating the rib cage from side to side. And make sure you’re in demi-plié when isolating your hips.” —Bob Rizzo
“Think of creating pictures with your movement. Each picture has to be crisp.” —Jacki Ford
“Start from a place of relaxation. Tensing up can hinder and prevent the body from being able to break itself down into smaller parts and
isolate.” —Sidra Bell
Ashley Rivers is a freelance writer and former DS intern. She is currently researching tap history through a writing fellowship at Emerson College.