Dance Team

Grace Gerring, a former member of the 14-time National Championship–winning University of Minnesota Dance Team, shows off one of the team’s signature moves. All photos by Steve Lucas.

1) Prep by stepping on your right leg, arms down and back slightly…

2)…and then Step Forward on your left leg, coming into fourth position plié, arms in first position.

3) Jump off the ground, keeping your left leg straight and bringing your right leg into parallel passé. As you take off, begin turning your body to the left.

4) Continue Flipping your shoulders and hips to the left as you extend your right leg forward and bring your left leg behind you, bent at 90 degrees. Launch your arms diagonally behind you and arch your back.

Grace says: “When you get in the air, think about switching your hips and shoulders and really kicking that front leg hard.”

What is jazz? It’s a classic American dance style, yet these days, most of us have a difficult time defining it—because jazz refuses to be pinned down. Instead, it changes over time, interacting with the other styles it meets along the way. The result: fusions like Latin jazz, street jazz and Afro-jazz.

DS chatted with the experts—Broadway Dance Center instructors Sue Samuels, Ginger Cox, Tracie Stanfield and Maria Torres; Joy of Motion Dance Center senior faculty member Maurice Johnson; and “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Sean Cheesman—to find out more about these sub-styles.

NYC's Jazz Roots Dance performing Shaft (photo by Jan Lasalle)

1. CLASSIC JAZZ

What is it? “It’s a style performed from the core, with clean and strong lines emanating from the hips and chest,” Sue Samuels says.

Where did it come from? Jack Cole, Gus Giordano, Matt Mattox and Luigi were major influences.

Where you may have seen it:

  • Giordano Dance Chicago
  • Jazz Roots Dance Company in NYC
  • Broadway musicals

How to spot it:

  • strong contractions through the chest and hips
  • isolations
  • parallel passés
  • shoulder twists
  • hinges

Tiffany Maher and George Lawrence II performing Mia Michaels' Hometown Glory on "SYTYCD" Season 9 (photo by Adam Rose/FOX)

2. CONTEMPORARY JAZZ

What is it? Tracie Stanfield says, “It challenges the rules and foundations of classic jazz by adding pedestrian movements, strong storylines and self-expression.”

Where did it come from? Mia Michaels’ earlier work popularized the style.

Where you may have seen it:

  • River North Dance Chicago
  • Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
  • choreography by Sonya Tayeh, Mandy Moore, Stacey Tookey and Mia Michaels on “SYTYCD”

How to Spot it:

  • initiation from the breathor an unconventional body part (elbow, rib, etc.)
  • pedestrian movement
  • classic steps—passé, battement, pirouette—with broken lines or changes in weight

Aaron Turner and Jasmine Harper performing Sean Cheesman's Mirror Mirror on "SYTYCD" Season 10 (photo by Adam Rose/FOX)

3. COMMERCIAL JAZZ

What is it? “It’s a mix of hip hop, jazz and the latest dance steps, choreographed to pop songs,” Sean Cheesman says.

Where did it come from? When MTV debuted in 1981, it created a surge in the production of music videos. This style was developed to fill the need for backup dancers in these videos.

Where you may have seen it: The music videos of:

  • Janet Jackson
  • Michael Jackson
  • Paula Abdul
  • Britney Spears

How to spot it:

  • emphasis on impressive tricks, such as leaps, flips and turns
  • moments where the movement is a very literal interpretation of the lyrics
  • changes in the music leading to changes in the choreographic theme

Maria Torres Dance Theatre performing Great Day in the Barrio (photo by Catlin Speiss)

4. LATIN JAZZ

What is it? “It’s 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,” Maria Torres says.

Where did it come from? Maria Torres developed and popularized the fusion at Broadway Dance Center. Ashlé Dawson further popularized the style on “SYTYCD,” “MADE” and “America’s Got Talent.”

Where you may have seen it:

  • Swing! on Broadway
  • The films El Cantante and Dance With Me
  • Maria Torres’ choreography on “SYTYCD” Season 3

How to spot it:

  • use of the clave, a rhythmic pattern that forms the backbone of Latin music
  • technical jazz elements performed to Latin music
  • hip action
  • isolation in a syncopated triplet

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing Jungle Jazz on "SYTYCD" Season 9 (photo by Adam Rose/Fox)

5. AFRO-JAZZ

What is it? Sean Cheesman says, “It’s a fusion of African dance with the technical elements of jazz.”

Where did it come from? Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey were pioneers in the exploration and development of the fusion.

Where you may have seen it:

  • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in NYC
  • Dallas Black Dance Theatre in Dallas, TX
  • Sean Cheesman’s choreography on “SYTYCD”

How to spot it:

  • loose arms, shoulders and back with a controlled lower body to execute technical jazz movements
  • deep, grounded plié
  • Afro-Cuban rhythms

Maurice Johnson teaching a street jazz class at the Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, D.C. (photo by Cecile Oreste)

6. STREET JAZZ

What is it? “It’s a blend of street dance and jazz—a stylization of what was being done in aerobic dance classes,” Maurice Johnson says.

Where did it come from? Within the last decade, dancers started taking street jazz out of the gym and into the studio, making it a recognized style.

Where you may have seen it:

  • Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake and their backup dancers
  • dancers in today’s hip-hop videos

How to spot it:

  •  fast footwork
  • head and neck isolations
  • technical steps (soutenu, pirouette, pas de bourrée, etc.) as transitions
  • fewer tricks than commercial jazz

 

THE DEFINITION DEBACLE

Even the experts admit that jazz is nearly impossible to define. Here’s what some of them had to say:

The "SYTYCD" Season 10 Top 6 performing Sean Cheesman's Muni Badnaam Hui Darling (photo by Adam Rose/FOX)

“Jazz is hard to define because it’s constantly changing and growing. But that means a jazz dancer can easily do all types of dance.” —Sean Cheesman

“With jazz dance, it’s really up to the instructor to breathe life into the form. That’s why it’s so individualized.” —Maurice Johnson

“There was a time when calling movement ‘jazz’ meant it was separate from the concert dance world, so a lot of people dropped the name but not the vocab. That means you probably see jazz a lot more than you realize—it’s just under a different name.” —Tracie Stanfield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Tendu your right foot forward, then bring it through coupé and up to retiré.

2. Développé your right leg as high as you can, keeping your shoulders lifted.

3. Holding your right leg in the air, release your upper body and head to the left, dropping toward the ground.Ashi says: “For this move, you must have a really strong core, and you have to make sure you’ve mastered your tilt first. Then just practice dropping!

Photography by Erin Baiano; Hair and makeup by Chuck Jensen for MARK EDWARD INC.

To prepare, tendu your right foot forward from first position.

Bring your right foot back into fifth position as you plié, then spring into a small prep jump, landing back in fifth-position plié.

Jump as high as you can, extending your right leg forward and lifting your left leg into a back attitude. Arch your arms and upper body backward as you lift your head toward the ceiling.

Kamille says: "Make sure you hit fifth before the jump, and then reach all the way back using the entire length of your arms. Lift up and out through your chest and sternum so you’re not crunching your lower back."

Photography by Joe Toreno. Hair and Makeup by Diane Aiello.

Prepare in a wide fourth-position plié.

 

Battement your leg forward toward your face—keeping it perfectly straight, with your foot pointed—and grab your ankle and lower calf with both hands as you begin your inside turn in forced arch.

Zoey says: “Really hold your core as you pull your leg toward you and

push into the ground with your standing leg for opposition.”

 

Photography by Erin Baiano. Hair and makeup by Tonya Noland For Mark Edward Inc.

JAKOB SAYS: "The key to the perfect layout is timing. Your head and leg need to hit the final position at the same time, so your développé shouldn't start to move past attitude until your head is already on its way back. It's like firing a slingshot."

Prepare...

...Développé...

...BAM!

Photography by Joe Toreno

Few things wow an audience like an explosive side leap. But before you bust out this move in your next jazz routine, make sure you’re doing it correctly! Tracie Stanfield, who teaches the “Leaps & Turns” class at Broadway Dance Center in NYC, suggests these exercises to ensure you have the proper placement and strength to nail this impressive jump every time.  

Warm-up:

This exercise lets you practice the coordination of a side leap without the jump. “The coordination is the trickiest part,” Stanfield says. “The first leg has to développé while the second leg does a battement at the same time.”

Sit on the floor with your hands behind you. Extend your legs to the front in fifth position, with your feet pointed and the right leg on top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lift your right leg to passé.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Développé your right leg to second. Don’t crunch your back! Pull up out of your hips and brace with your arms so you don’t lean back.

Return your right leg to sous-sus.

 

 

 

Lift your right leg to passé again, and as you extend it to second, battement your left leg out to second simultaneously. Your legs should hit the final straddle position at the same time.

Return to fifth and repeat on the left side.

 

Click here to watch Tracie Stanfield teach this exercise.

In the center:

This exercise will help you find your true second—the position you should be hitting in the air. “Even though it’s a side leap, your legs aren’t directly to the side, they’re to your turnout,” Stanfield says. “Aim for the corners. Then, once you find your turnout, you can try to open it up a little more.”

 

Start standing in a wide fourth position with your right leg back.

 

 

 

 

 

Brush your right foot through first position and relevé as you arrive in attitude à la seconde. Keep your arms slightly forward, so your rib cage doesn’t open up. Turn out your right leg as much as possible.

Return to fourth position, coming back through first.

Repeat four times and switch sides.

 

 

 

 

The next step: Repeat the exercise, but this time, when you brush your working leg to attitude, push off your standing leg into a jump. To build strength, focus on pointing and turning out your bottom leg. The working leg should be in the same place it was in relevé.

 

 

 

 

Across the floor:

Now you’re ready to leap! “This is a building exercise,” Stanfield says. “Start with pas de chats, then open them up, then let them go. You have to really push up off the floor with each jump.”

Tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade and pas de chat. Focus on hitting the diamond position of the pas de chat in the air.

 

Glissade again, and jump into an open pas de chat, with your legs making right angles and your feet pointing directly down at the floor. Keep your back and neck long, and open your legs from the hips. Your arms should be in second position.

 

 

 

 

Glissade again, and go for the full side leap. Remember to reach your toes to the corners of the room instead of straight to the side, and to hit second position with both legs at the same time.

 

 

 

No funny faces! Stanfield says: “To avoid sticking out your tongue, try pressing it to the roof of your mouth. Think about having big eyes and exhaling on the leap instead of holding your breath.”

A teen jazz class at Broadway Dance Center in NYC practices balancing.

Nothing makes an audience go wild like a fierce pirouette sequence, and great jazz performers can make countless turns look effortless. But turning isn’t easy. Chances are you’re always working on improving your pirouettes—nailing that extra rotation or mastering a new tricky turn. Here, DS gives you the inside scoop on four types of pirouettes you’re likely to see in jazz class.

Basic Jazz Pirouette (Parallel Retiré)

For a jazz dancer, this turn is probably the first to come to mind when hearing the word “pirouette.” “The obvious difference between a jazz turn and a ballet pirouette is that in jazz we’re working in a parallel position,” says Ray Leeper, choreographer and executive director of NUVO dance convention. Another key difference is the preparation: While ballerinas prep for pirouettes in a turned-out fourth- or fifth-position plié, jazz technique usually calls for a preparation in fourth-position parallel. “But the execution once you start to turn is almost exactly the same,” Leeper says.

To master the foundations of a basic pirouette, Kent Boyd, commercial dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7 finalist, recommends working on going from a preparation position to a retiré balance in relevé. “Try to hold the relevé position for a whole eight-count,” he says. Nan Giordano, artistic director of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, includes a similar exercise in most of her beginning jazz classes, progressing from quarter to half to full pirouettes. “Once you master the mechanics of turning, it’s just a matter of how many rotations you can complete while maintaining that passé position,” she says. But don’t get so focused on getting in an extra spin or two that you forget about technique. It’s always better to pull off a clean double pirouette than a sloppy triple or quadruple.

Turn with an Extended Leg 

Pirouettes in arabesque, attitude or à la seconde are especially popular in lyrical and contemporary jazz styles and showcase a dancer’s extensions. Turns with an extended leg are tricky, since part of your weight is farther away from your center, making it more difficult to stay on balance. Just like a pirouette in retiré, you should practice balancing in the position of your turn before adding rotations. “Really pull up out of your standing leg,” Boyd says. That engaged and lifted feeling will help keep you from teetering toward the extended leg. “No matter where the working leg is—in passé or extended—the engagement should be the same,” says Leeper. “Keep the weight of the shoulders in front of the hips, lift up in the waist and keep the tailbone long.”

Struggling with that double attitude or arabesque turn? Try speeding up your spot. Whipping your head around quickly makes multiple rotations possible by counteracting the effect of an extended leg slowing down your turn.

Pencil Turn

Seen in high-energy jazz and Broadway routines, pencil turns (also called compass turns) are executed with the non-standing leg pointed down toward the floor, with the foot hovering off the ground as you turn. To make this pirouette look polished and precise, pay attention to the step’s name—both legs should be straight as a pencil and (unless the choreographer instructs otherwise) your non-standing foot should be completely pointed. Unlike an extended-leg turn, a pencil turn is conducive to fast, multiple turns because your weight is concentrated over the center of your body. To avoid spinning too quickly and falling off balance, Giordano advises focusing on your arms. “Everyone forgets the arms when they concentrate on spinning quickly,” she says. “Feel your arms connected to your back right away.” When the upper and lower body work together, pencil turns look impressive and feel like a breeze.

Inside Turn

In a ballet class, turns in the direction of the supporting side are called pirouettes en dedans, but in jazz they’re known simply as inside turns. Both retiré pirouettes and extension turns are frequently done to the inside. Pay close attention to your preparation when working on these turns. “Watch what your upper body is doing in the prep,” Giordano says. A pitfall for many dancers is twisting the waist and arms to one side to gain extra momentum. “When you ‘wind up’ you throw yourself off center,” Giordano cautions.

When it comes to pirouettes, there are no shortcuts to turning like a pro. Keep up with your jazz technique classes, but don’t be tempted to skip out on ballet. Giordano says applying your ballet corrections to jazz turns is essential. “Too many aspiring jazz dancers think they don’t need to take ballet, but good pirouettes come from the technique you build in a classical ballet class,” she says. Although they are part of a jazz company, Giordano’s dancers prepare for every performance with a full ballet barre. “In ballet,” she says, “you learn how to be centered over your leg and gain the strength in the core, back and arms—all essential components of a great pirouette.”

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored