In January 2010, the French jazz dance publication JazzPulsions published my article "Jazz Dance in New York - is it in Peril?" (their title).
This article was the result of interviews with many of the jazz dance choreographers and teachers in NYC who responded to my request for an interview on the subject. Attached first here are jpg scans of the magazine pages, and then after that my original English article. For the magazine, my text was translated into French by Patty Karagozian of JazzPulsions.
Following the publication of this January 2010 issue, JazzPulsions ceased publication.
JazzPulsions page 1
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The Current State of Jazz Dance in New York City - 2010
New York City has a legacy as a haven for jazz. But as most serious jazz dancers know, the health of today’s jazz scene is not vibrant. Around the world, jazz continues to splinter, evolve, and even be supplanted as America’s folk dance. This trend is noticeable in New York right now.
Over the years many jazz dance companies and choreographers have called New York their home – from Jack Cole and Daniel Nagrin on to the masters Matt Mattox and Luigi, through to the next generation of Fred Benjamin and Lynn Simonson, and now to the latest incarnation with jazz artists likeTracie Stanfield and Ginger Cox. Two established choreographers, Danny Buraczeski and Billy Siegenfeld, have started their companies in New York but moved to other cities that were more hospitable. At this current moment, there are just a handful of NYC based companies who wear the badge of “jazz dance.”
For instance, the stalwart Fred Benjamin Dance Company was founded in 1968, but now performs only on rare occasions in special programs produced by Dr. Glory Van Scott. Newer companies that espouse a jazz basis are the Synthesis Dance Project of Tracie Stanfield, LiNK! the Movement founded by Ginger Cox, and the theatre dance based Chase Brock Experience. The Synthesis Dance Project has been the most active, presenting regular seasons at the tiny Hudson Theatre. There are modern dance companies, like Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company and Forces of Nature, who will at times use jazz dance vocabulary and themes, but they do not label themselves as a jazz dance company.
When speaking of obstacles that jazz dance faces, the relevance of jazz dance to today’s concert going audiences is an ongoing question. American society is changing to reflect the influences of technology and the ever-present mass media, which advances “celebrity” as its tool to draw in the viewer. NYC dance critics are primarily educated in ballet or the “downtown dance” of the postmodern, contemporary dancer. Jazz dance, with its emphasis on feeling and accessibility is often ridiculed for its folk roots. For instance, Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times, in reviewing a 2006 performance by the Fred Benjamin Dance Company, said that Benjamin “creates easy-on-the-eye, old fashioned movement,” and that “he may not make the most sophisticated dance in New York…”
Choreographer and teacher Tracie Stanfield has experienced this perception, saying “While speaking with presenters, they seemed to want to put me in either the ballet ‘box’ or the modern ‘box.’ In order to get my work produced, I have dropped the word ‘jazz’ from the company description.” The dated stigma that jazz dance is not artistic, or worthy of concert production, has not been shaken. And Ginger Cox mentioned that “Ironically, people don’t hire me for the traditional jazz, they hire me for my other styles.”
A bright spot in jazz dance performance is the group Jazz Choreography Enterprises, headed by president Marian Hyun. For the last few years this non-profit organization has been producing semi-annual jazz dance showcase concerts at the New Dance Group Arts Center. Now that NDG has closed, their next concert is scheduled for mid November 2009 at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center. Hyun echoed the lament about dance critic’s perception of jazz dance, saying “I have the feeling dance critics do not think of jazz as having as much artistic merit as ballet or modern, or even tap dance, but since so little jazz is actually presented and reviewed, its hard to say.” When pressed about that lack of fully producing jazz companies, she added, “I think jazz dance companies might have a difficult time finding an audience because of the lack of knowledge about jazz dance and the perception among some that it is hopelessly old fashioned. And in a city like NY, where seeing the newest and most exciting art is a goal of many, jazz doesn’t create the kind of interest and excitement that contemporary and hip hop does.”
The teaching of jazz dance in NYC has also shown changes in recent years. Whereas traditional jazz classes were immensely popular through the mid 1980s, since then a slow decline has taken place as pioneering teachers have been lost to attrition and newly emerging jazz dance forms have taken root. An example of this is the blend of street dance with jazz led by teacher Frank Hatchett.
Hip hop classes are a large portion of nearly all commercial studios like Broadway Dance Center, and even represented at artistic studios like Peridance and Dance New Amsterdam. Contemporary dance classes are the latest trend in the NYC dance scene, mixing in style with both modern dance and jazz classes. At Broadway Dance Center and STEPS, contemporary jazz dance classes now make up more than one third of all jazz dance classes.
The changing ownership of NYC dance studios was a contributing reason to the decline of jazz dance’s visibility. Years ago many jazz dance leaders directed their own NYC studios, leading to a strong presence of individual jazz dance philosophies (similar to what is now seen in France). Matt Mattox and Phil Black, as well as Ronn Forella and Charles Kelley were studio owners or dominant teachers, with full daily teaching schedules. Frank Hatchett was the founding teacher of today’s Broadway Dance Center, while JoJo Smith preceded him at that Times Square location with JoJo’s Dance Factory. Lynn Simonson’s technique blossomed at her SOHO based DanceSpace. Luigi, although still teaching a daily schedule at Studio Maestro, cut an even more dominant feature when he had his own studio location in Lincoln Center. This establishment of jazz dance beach heads in NYC’s past contrasts with today’s landscape, where the majority of jazz dance teachers are situated in large, multi-room studios - where jazz dance is not a primary philosophy – teaching a limited schedule of classes per week.
That being said, there still are a substantial number of quality jazz dance teachers working in NYC. Susie Taylor, Joe Lanteri, Patti Wilcox, and Debbie Roshe have large classes at STEPS. Sheila Barker, Tracie Stanfield, Ginger Cox, and Sue Samuels lead jazz dance classes at Broadway Dance Center, along with Celia Marta teaching World Jazz and Slam teaching Contemporary Jazz. Dance New Amsterdam, formerly DanceSpace, is still based in the technique of Lynn Simonson. Although Simonson no longer teaches ongoing technique classes in NYC, a staff of teachers certified in her method, led by Katiti King, teaches what is now listed on their schedule as “contemporary jazz – Simonson technique.” Stephen Harding of Manhattan Movement & Arts Center has been teaching in NYC for over twenty years. Sharon Wong directs a strong faculty of jazz teachers at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Luigi and Francis Roach teach the Luigi technique at Studio Maestro. Although NYC jazz dance was dealt a blow when international teacher Michael Owens moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s, his technique lives on in NYC with his former students, now teachers – Debbie Roshe and Deborah Zalkind.
A new national trend, affecting all of jazz dance is the immense popularity of television dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance. These shows present a terse, commercial style, heavy on contemporary feel, to the overwhelming majority of teen and young adult dancers across the country. When these dancers bring their notion of jazz dance to their classes in NYC or colleges, the market place responds by giving them just those types of classes. This trend can be fought in colleges, where dance professors have more say over course content. For instance, the leading jazz dance choreographer Danny Buraczeski is now a Professor of Dance at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He stated “I am in my fifth year at SMU, and with each subsequent first year class, the influence of dance competitions and So You Think You Can Dance has gotten stronger and stronger…It takes longer and longer to get the young dancers into the classic idiom. I am happy to say that they do. Some respond right away, but others don’t’ get it.”
In my own teaching in NYC, I have seen jazz dance slip away in popularity. My personal take is that our American society has changed radically since the Internet generation of the 1990s. The twentieth century American society was based on the invention of jazz and its many closely related permutations. But our twenty first century is based on technology, which is not “jazz-friendly.” The feel and values of popular music has changed. Contemporary has evolved as the appropriate movement for today’s mentality. Young dancers do not “feel” music the same way as“old-school” teachers. As Vicki Sheer, director of the Dance Educator’s of America wrote to me, “I believe contemporary is growing today because it expresses the mess the world is in today. The music is far from uplifting and this is what they are trying to express in dance.” Dancers have shorter attention spans, they tend not commit to the long-term study of particular techniques, and their lives are increasingly transitory.
There are many aspects concerning the state of jazz dance that cannot be discussed in this short article, and I’m sure that there are many hard working professionals in jazz who haven’t been mentioned. Jazz is not dead – but it surely isn’t as dominant as it once was. It may not even be that jazz has lost popularity due to changing its nature, but rather that there are just more alternative dance forms for young dancers to be involved with. The media has latched onto these new forms, as they are fresh and involve the easily swayed younger dancer.
One thing that is missing, unmistakably, are figureheads for jazz dance who galvanize support and lead the movement. Sharon Wong lamented, “something that’s homegrown needs to be cultivated – there is a need for activists, conventions, and discussions.” Jazz dance in NYC right now is like a boat without a rudder. Without strong leadership very soon, jazz could experience a further erosion of importance. Marian Hyun and the efforts of Jazz Choreography Enterprises are examples of what is needed, but we need even more. At one time, Lynn Simonson and DanceSpace were producing evenings of jazz dance company work. The Fred Benjamin Dance Company was actively presenting choreography. Billy Siegenfeld and Danny Buraczeski were performing, and strong jazz dance work was seen in Broadway shows. But most of these stalwarts are no longer active in NYC, leaving a void that is waiting to be filled. Let’s hope that it will not take too long before one or more innovative jazz dance artists are able to place their imprint on the next chapter in jazz dance history, setting the stage for new artistic expression in this uniquely American dance form.