Rethinking Jazz Pedagogy: Roots And Responsibility

Guest Blogger | 07 April, 2020

            Rethinking Jazz Pedagogy: Roots And Responsibility

By: Lindsay Guarino 

Dancers often think of leaps, turns and leg extensions as synonymous with jazz technique, along with isolations and sharp, angular lines. Classes are typically prepared with the goal of developing the strength, flexibility and control required to execute thesejazz ballet-derived steps. Students are taught that “ballet is the foundation,” and skill-based exercises are prioritized in the classroom.  

I make this generalization with confidence because (*confession*) I, at one time, did this too. 

My personal journey as a jazz dancer and scholar has led me to completely rethink jazz pedagogy. Knowing that jazz is born of African parents, and at its core is a reflection of the African-American experience, I’ve spent the past decade restoring the primacy of Africanist aesthetics in my jazz classes. Why? Because, as a white jazz artist, I owe this to the people and culture that never had the privilege of owning their own style. This process has been transformative. Looking to specific social and kinetic elements for inspiration has opened the door to a rooted approach for teaching jazz, one that sparks creative ingenuity at every turn. My classes today are spaces that are communal, improvisational, and democratic. Jazz dance is celebrated as its own thing – separate from ballet, uniquely American and intimately connected to music. 

Here are some tools for rethinking your jazz class in hopes that you, too, will honor the roots of jazz dance as we move forward in educating the next generation of responsible jazz dancers. 

-Design your class with social elements in mind (the circle, community, call & response) 

-Shift the traditional hierarchies in the classroom to create a more democratic experience (that means turn away from the mirrors, and dance with your students!) 

-Provide plenty of opportunities for reflection within the community 

-Define jazz technique as its own thing = Complex rhythms (including syncopation and polyrhythms), weight (groundedness and weight shifts), polycentrism, isolations, dynamic shifts of energy, personal style 

-Encourage students to understand when to harness ballet-derived alignment and when to let it go in favor of vernacular-bodied posture 

-Make improvisation central to jazz training rather than an accessory 

-Look to jazz music as motivation & inspiration 

I use Pat Cohen’s social and kinetic elements from her chapter “Jazz Dance as a Continuum” inJazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches to determine specific goals for each class and to stay rooted. The list draws from elements that are consistently evident in traditional African dance, African-American vernacular dance, and authentic jazz dance. 


Social Elements 

Kinetic Elements 

Community – the circle 

Use of the flat foot 

Individuality within the group (individual creativity) 

Bent hip, knee, and ankle joints 

Vocal encouragement 

Articulated, inclined torso 

Lack of separation between performer & spectator 

Body part isolations 

Friendly challenges among the dancers 

Groundedness (earthiness) 

Confrontational attitude (“in your face”) 



Embellishment and elaboration 

Call and response 

Polyrhythms; syncopation 

Conversation between musicians and dancers 



Angularity and asymmetry 


Personal expression and creativity 


A Groove-Based Warmup 

Use groove as the foundation for establishing community and connection to the music. Groove is a term for the propulsive rhythms found in jazz music that make you want to move, sway, bounce, pat your leg, clap your hands, etc. The following prompts are a framework and help create a fertile space for exploration of all of the above social and kinetic elements.   


-Feel the rhythmic pulse of the music through walking/swaying/bouncing. Move the rhythm into different parts of the body (weight shifts in the feet; then in your hips/shoulders/torso/head) 

-Walk around the room to the beat of the music. Encourage students to SEE each other (this will be uncomfortable for them at first! Find comfort in the discomfort!). Change the cues so they walk in different rhythmic patterns (step every count/every two counts/every four counts/in a triplet rhythm). Add contrasts in quality (ex. add a percussive STOP) 

-Stand in a circle and have the dancers follow along as you introduce different rhythms and isolations, all while staying in the groove  

-Teach a rhythmic phrase and then have your students dance it across the floor, or around the room, or toward each other, or – better yet – in partners where one dancer does the choreography and the other responds. Make sure you generate the choreography from the ground-up. Rhythm first! 

Don’t forget that music is your source of inspiration. When the creative well runs dry, change the music. Different music choices should inspire new qualities. Find music that evokes aesthetic of the cool. Or a confrontational attitude. Or joyousness.  

Here’s a sample playlist for a groove-based warmup: 

"Burnin’ Coal” by Les McCann 

Shake It” by Herb Alpert 

It’s Alright (Why You Gotta)” by Jon Batiste and Stay Human 

Flaximus (Renegades of Jazz Bboy Edit)” by Brownout 

Back at the Chicken Shack” by Jimmy Smith 

It has been especially exciting to watch the transformation in my students. Their reflections consistently include the following themes: 

-Community: They identify and recognize the feeling of being safe and supported; they feel more connected to their peers; they don’t judge themselves as critically 

-Knowledge: They develop a completely new understanding of what jazz is and how it feels in their bodies 

-Responsibility: They recognize the importance of honoring the African and African-American roots of jazz  

-Autonomy: They feel empowered to be themselves and find a sense of style that is authentic and internally-motivated 

-Experience: They point to joy, humanness, and improvisation (and their comfort with it!) as elements that they find new and surprising. 



Lindsay Guarino is an associate professor and director of the dance program at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI, where she has been a member of the faculty since 2006. In that time, she has facilitated the dramatic growth dance program, including the recent development of a dance major curriculum rooted in jazz dance and social justice. A native of Buffalo, NY, Lindsay has taught and choreographed in a range of jazz styles at colleges, dance studios and festivals across the country. Her jazz research has been presented at conferences and events throughout the New England region and regularly at NDEO’s national conferences. In 2017 Lindsay designed Jazz Dance Theory and Practice for the National Dance Education Organization’s Online Professional Development Institute, and she teaches the course on a regular basis. Lindsay has now planned and hosted two NDEO conferences at Salve Regina: “Jazz Dance: Roots and Branches in Practice” (2016), and “Jazz Dance: Hybrids, Fusions, Connections, Community” (2019). Her passion for preserving and elevating jazz dance led her to publishJazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branchesin 2014, and she is currently editing a second book titled21st Century Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in Teaching and Choreography.She is one of the experts interviewed in the upcoming documentaryUpRooted: The Journey of Jazz,and she also served as a consultant on the film. 


Lindsay’s current teaching practice is also her research, which involves exploring jazz energy in the classroom through shared groove and authentic human-to-human interaction. She is dedicated to approaching her jazz classes from a historically rooted perspective and documenting the transformative experience that occurs when students find their unique jazz voice and recognize community as central to the jazz experience.