5 Signs Jazz Dance is Still Alive

In 2017, DanceTeacher published an article by Rachel Zar on what felt like a decrease in popularity for jazz as a dance genre. That same year, the enrollment in the summer intensive I direct, Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop, plummeted and for the first time the thought hit me -- is jazz dance dead? In hindsight, there were other signs that jazz dance was in trouble before then. In 2012, my world was rocked when I heard that my mentor and most influential jazz dance teacher, Lynn Simonson, was now calling her classes “contemporary” instead of “jazz”. That’s when I first realized things had changed drastically. As I looked around, it was easy to see that contemporary dance was eclipsing jazz in prominence as the popular dance genre. The future didn’t look too bright for jazz dance from where I stood. 

We need to stay connected to the history of jazz dance, but not get stuck in the past

Fast forward to the present and there seem to be glimmers of hope that jazz dance is re-discovering its footing. 

Although the dance world has changed, here are five major indicators that the outlook for this important genre is looking up and jazz is still alive and well. 

1. The teachers

There are many jazz teachers who have no intention of folding under the pressure to abandon jazz dance. Their classes are now as popular as ever. Examples are Helene Phillips and Malaya (both at Edge, L.A.); Christy McNeil Chand (Cal Poly SLO dance program and guest artist at many colleges, ACDA conferences, etc.); Mark Haines, Chair of Riverside City College; Nancy Cranbourne, Boulder, CO; and Kaitlin Webster (Studio North Academy for the Performing Arts, Chicago), to name a few. (See list at the bottom of this article for others to look out for).

2. The dancers

L.A. Dancer, Raquel Medina, who frequently assists Malaya, puts it this way: “the technical dancers who grew up on jazz dance and love it are fighting for it to come back.” Lending credence to that notion, professional dancer & choreographer, Annie Gratton is currently organizing pop-up classes for fellow dancers in L.A. who miss jazz dance – Jazz with Friends (complete with jazz hands!) Younger dancers may not appreciate the many jazz styles as much right now, but some of the dancers who grew up on jazz are now studio owners, such as Helen Estrella (Motion Dance Center in Denver). Helen continues to expose the next generation of dancers to her brand of jazz dance and believes it’s up to teachers to make converts out of young dancers. 

Christy McNeil Chand teaching a jazz class
Christy McNeil Chand teaching a jazz class © Wendy Turner

3. A rose by any other name...

Styles that previously fell under the jazz umbrella are still popular and the classes are well-attended, though the names have changed - “theatre dance” is one example. Granted, “theatre dance” can include other styles, but in New York City and elsewhere, these classes are where many dancers are getting their jazz training nowadays. The recent Fosse series at Steps on Broadway is an example. Another example -- the emotional expression and choreography married to the lyrics that were once associated with “lyrical jazz" are now traits of contemporary. While the labels have changed and styles have fused, they are still around -- so to me, that’s a win for jazz. Perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter what the styles are called. 

4. Jazz Dance is still a must for anyone who wants to dance commercially.

It is common knowledge in the commercial dance world that jazz classes prepare dancers to audition for dance jobs. Afterall, many dance jobs involve jazz or hip-hop. In recent conversations with casting agents for cruise lines and other commercial opportunities, Christy McNeil Chand has heard them comment on “the lack of ability to count and replicate lines” on the part of many dancers...which, Christy observes, are “the very skills taught in jazz classes.” Kaitlin Webster, goes further to say jazz training helps dancers auditioning for contemporary dance roles too. “When I see dancers audition without any jazz experience, I see a lack of strength, musicality, and precision, that jazz teaches.” If you want a performance career, jazz dance training is going to enhance your chances of getting that job. Practicing jazz in heels is also a plus (and heels classes are another example of popular classes where jazz can be found). The demand for jazz training isn’t going away any time soon...as long as there are jobs that feature jazz choreography (which there always have been!) there will be a need for trained jazz dancers.  

5. The renewed focus on jazz dance by dance education organizations

Last summer, NDEO revived its jazz dance conference, last held in 2016, this year titled “Jazz Dance: Hybrids, Fusions, Connections, Community”. One year ago, intrepid dance educator and founder of Jazz Is...Dance Project, Melanie George, galvanized the jazz dance community with the creation of JazzDanceDirect -- offering copious jazz dance resources for dancers and teachers alike. The most prominent dance conventions such as 24/7, JUMP, NUVO, and Tremaine feature jazz front and center in their 2019/2020 curriculum. A new generation of dancers is being exposed to the living, breathing dance form that is jazz through these and many other conventions.

When I see dancers audition without any jazz experience, I see a lack of strength, musicality, and precision, that jazz teaches.

5, 6, 7, 8! So what does all of this add up to? 

Just maybe, as Raquel Medina told me regarding the LA. dance scene, “the worst is over for jazz dance”. Ultimately, the future of jazz dance will be determined by dancers who “vote” for which dance genres and styles will endure by taking those classes. With this, we must continue to ask ourselves: what is jazz dance? While some may disagree, I believe that in order for jazz to survive, jazz dance artists need to keep innovating and adding to the language of the dance form, relating it to current times and current music. This is where jazz came from, after all. We need to stay connected to the history of jazz dance, but not get stuck in the past. New hybrid styles are emerging -- “contemporary jazz” for example. For me, that is a positive sign. 

Even if you think jazz dance isn’t your jam, taking class with the right teacher can change your mind. There are as many different jazz styles as there are teachers. Here are some recommendations of excellent teachers to check out if you can. Of course, there are many more out there -- this curated list is not intended to be all inclusive. 

  • Will Bell - L.A., Millennium; NYC, Broadway Dance Center
  • Terri Best - L.A., Edge Performing Arts Center (tutorials on DancePlug)
  • Nancy Cranbourne – Boulder, Colorado, various studios
  • Sheri Lewis – Seattle, Westlake Dance Center
  • Malaya – L.A., Edge Performing Arts Center
  • Nick Palmquist– NYC, Steps on Broadway (Commercial Jazz)
  • Helene Phillips – L.A., Edge Performing Arts Center
  • Richard Pierlon – NYC, Steps on Broadway (Theatre Dance, Lyrical)
  • Michael Rooney – L.A., Edge Performing Arts Center, Legacy Studio
  • Rickie Ruiz - Chicago, Academy of Dance Arts & Lou Conte Dance Center
  • Kaitlin Webster - Chicago, Studio North Academy for the Performing Arts
  • Christina Woodard - L.A. Edge Performing Arts Center (tutorials on DancePlug)

Others to be on the lookout for (master classes, conventions, summer intensives, residencies):

  • Marguerite Derricks
  • Tyce Diorio
  • Richard Elszy (tutorials on DancePlug)
  • Mark Haines (Chair RCC Dance Riverside, Guest Teacher various colleges, ACDA, etc.)
  • Bryant Henderson
  • Dominique Kelley
  • Danny Lawn
  • Ray Leeper - NUVO Conventions, etc. 
  • Alex Little (tutorials on DancePlug)
  • Joelle Martinec (tutorials on DancePlug)
  • Christy McNeil Chand
  • Mandy Moore

main photo: Brittany Maxwell Hopkins, Interweave Dance Theatre © Wendy Turner

About the author

Lara Branen (aka Elle) is the Artistic Director of the Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop (BJDW) and its resident company Interweave Dance Theatre (IDT). She received her Masters in Dance from the University of Colorado in Boulder where she also taught jazz dance. Since then she has taught primarily at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California. She has also choreographed and directed extensively through IDT and SRJC. In 2018 Lara received the prestigious Legends of Dance in Colorado award for her work with the BJDW. She has always loved to write and is excited for the opportunity to write for DancePlug.