Let them have cake walks

“It’s really interesting to see what people know jazz to be,” choreographer Randy Duncan said during the 2002 Jazz Dance World Congress. “And to see how they bring it about on stage.”

In case you’re not clear on what jazz dance is, think of Broadway theatrics as seen in Chicago and Fosse (about legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, who gave his name to a dance style flattering to all body types). But along with glamorous staged routines, jazz dance encompasses well-known moves like the Charleston and the shimmy.

“My definition of jazz dance is really simple: the tradition of dancing to jazz music,” choreographer Danny Buraczeski told Dance magazine in 2003.

A similar sentiment led Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago – the high-energy company slated to perform at Diana Wortham Theatre this week – to declare its mission “to develop and preserve the indigenous American art form of jazz dance, thereby creating an awareness of jazz dance as a true artistic expression of American life.”

Slick back your hair and wear your buckle shoes

“It was seen as good enough for movies and stage, but not for a pure concert art form,” Giordano Artistic Director and dancer Jon Lehrer explains to Xpress. “In my opinion, people thought ‘jazz dance [represents] American life, so how can that be art?’ But it’s a pulse; it’s accessible.”

As in, sure, Liza Minnelli looks amazing performing her infamous thigh-high-stockings-and-chair number in Cabaret, but then again, isn’t that your own middle-aged neighbor working syncopated steps on the dance floor of the local club? It doesn’t take Baryshnikov to pull off a jazz routine.

And that’s the idea. “We appeal to a much wider range [of audience] than, say, ballet,” Lehrer notes. “We’ll get teachers and construction workers.”

Because it’s fun. And athletic: “We start at 9:30 a.m. with dance class, rehearse until 4 o’clock and then afterwards hit the gym,” Lehrer told the online magazine Zephyr last year. It’s sexy, too. And happy: The form involves whimsical costumes and moves of undiluted energy – no hard-to-get interpretive flailings to moody, atonal music; nothing to leave the audience feeling unenlightened. Add to that the entertainment world’s love of fusion, and jazz dance – no longer just a vehicle for fishnet tights and canes – is updated with balletic elegance, modern-dance sensibility and hip-hop street cred.

“Jazz dance has long been seen as pure entertainment,” the Lehrer points out. “We keep that, but now we try to add artistry to it.”

Seal of authenticity

But as eager as the company is to prove jazz as a viable art form, Giordano isn’t about to sell out the dance’s roots. “Jazz dance paralleled the birth and spread of jazz itself from roots in black American society, and was popularized in ballrooms by the big bands of the swing era (1930s and ‘40s),” instructs a passage in Encyclopedia Britannica‘s Guide to Black History. “It radically altered the style of American and European stage and social dance in the 20th century.”

“There aren’t many teachers teaching pure-jazz technique,” Lehrer reveals. “We do that at Giordano. When we travel around, we teach Giordano technique, and strive to keep that alive.”

Created by the company’s founder and namesake Gus Giordano, the method was conceived as a means of training dancers – a basis of knowledge from which the company could build new repertoire. This technique preserves what the company avows is a classic style.

“[Giordano] is the oldest jazz-dance company in the world,” Lehrer boasts. “We’re 43 years old this season. There aren’t many pure-jazz dance companies left.”

But maintaining authenticity doesn’t mean Giordano dancers perform in a vacuum. In fact, outreach and educational programs are an important part of the company’s mission, as is the Jazz Dance World Congress, started by Gus Giordano in 1990.

Dance ambassadors to the world

The Congress, appropriately held in Chicago, allows dancers, teachers and choreographers to come together and further each other’s work. Troupes travel from as far away as Russia and Japan.

“Jazz dance as an American art form was picked up by other countries,” Lehrer says. “With Russia it was always ballet. Japan was always steeped in their own cultural dances. They saw jazz dance as an escape.”

But when these overseas dancers perform jazz routines, it’s to their own music, and flavored by their own cultural mores, thus furthering the fusion process. Not coincidentally, this process was begun decades earlier, when Giordano caught the attention of the touring Bolshoi Ballet, who invited the American company to the Soviet Union.

Not that Lehrer eschews this jitterbugging version of the melting pot. “Audiences don’t want to see the same style for two hours. They are more sophisticated today, and need to enjoy artistry and be entertained,” he told Zephyr. “Dancers need to study all forms of dance so they will be marketable.”

It’s as if the dance form long shunned as middlebrow is now the dance everyone wants to be doing – a trend due in part to popular TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“On the good side, it’s created an audience. Nine-to-fivers are sitting at home getting hooked on these shows,” Lehrer says. And then they’re curious about seeing those moves live. “It happened before in the ‘80s and ‘90s with movies like Fame, Dirty Dancing and Footloose.” Only this time around, the clothes are better.

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago takes the Diana Wortham Theatre stage Friday, Feb. 10 and Saturday, Feb. 11. Shows are at 8 p.m. both nights; tickets are $30/general, $28/seniors, $25/students, $10/children. 257-4530.


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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