A mere decade ago, if commercial work was your goal, taking jazz classes was your route to get there. In recent years, however, the call for dancers who know hip hop has been loud and strong. It’s hard to tell just where each style stands, so Dance Magazine asked key figures in the jazz and hip hop world.
Nan Giordano, artistic director, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and the Jazz Dance World Congress
Absolutely positively you must study jazz. Most of the dancers in our company are proficient in hip hop—it’s another strength that they have. My father Gus Giordano said it for years: the total dancer. At our school we require ballet, jazz, modern, tap, and hip hop, which came into the fold 10 or 12 years ago. Jazz enables a dancer to become grounded, more centered, to learn where the movement comes from. They can learn freedom of the body in hip hop. In working on isolations, hip hop and jazz go hand in hand.
Hi Hat, L.A.-based commercial choreographer
I don’t think there’s a label on styles now. Jazz and hip hop are combined, and they’re calling it pop. It’s just whatever is more edgy. If you’re trying to be a choreographer, it’s good to take up as many different styles as you can.
There’s always going to be work that embraces every different style, so you need to know everything. You have to have jazz and ballet training. What’s happening is jazz is fusing with hip hop. I saw a class called “hip jazz” on the schedule at Debbie Reynolds’ studio! People are getting creative.
Shane Sparks, hip hop choreographer and judge, So You Think You Can Dance
People who only do hip hop need to have some kind of technical background because it helps you with balance, strength, and picking up choreography. How many movies or TV shows do you see people freestyle in? You see a commercial and it’s all choreography. And it’s not necessarily always hip hop. It’s sometimes jazz and it’s mixed with a little bit of old school ’60s styles or cabaret. Commer-cial work is not going to be all booty shakin’ and poppin’. Sometimes you’re going to have to hit a pirouette.
Tom Ralabate, national chair of education strategy, Dance Masters of America, and associate professor, State University of New York at Buffalo
Hip hop no longer is a trend; it’s a world force. But to be innovative and ahead of the game, you need to understand the tradition and its development historically, philosophically, technically, aesthetically. In jazz everything has to be connected. Hip hop is connected to characteristics that are related to African traditional dance, which is how the jazz movement basically developed. It’s important to get jazz technical elements under your belt, because technique wins out in the end. But sometimes that type of technical training can hinder the freedom and creativeness that hip hop allows—and jazz dance, in its essence, allows.
Elizabeth Parkinson, performer, teacher, and choreographer
Hip hop has a technique of its own, but as a jazz dancer, you have more flexibility. You need to be able to walk into an audition and assimilate yourself into whatever they throw at you. You can get a lot of work in Los Angeles as a hip hop dancer, but not as much in New York, where there is more work for a jazz dancer. It’s an East Coast, West Coast kind of a thing.
Alison “Al Star” Faulk, dance captain, the Groovaloos
Hip hop is definitely more popular in the commercial market right now, but it has not replaced jazz. Both styles have legitimate techniques that need to be learned. There is technique in jazz that is important in hip hop and any kind of professional job you do out there. For instance, jazz isolations helped me to isolate my body correctly in hip hop. Hip hop is super musical and taught me to open my ears to the music and the lyrics. I’ve never been on a hip hop job where I haven’t used some sort of jazz technique. I think there’s going to come a time again when it’s cool to be a technical jazz dancer.
Frank Chavez, artistic director, River North Chicago Dance Company
In an audition, I can always see jazz training or a lack thereof. A foundation in jazz translates into freedom of movement and “personality.” This personality pulls from society, music, fashion, and the politics of the moment. I always ask for people to bring the social, unlearned boogie into the studio. This is, in essence, American jazz. Hip hop is an element of jazz, just like the Charleston and ballroom all bleed in at certain times. Even krumping, which many people think of as hip hop, has lots of heavy contractions based in the jazz idiom.
Mia Michaels, contemporary and commercial jazz choreographer, artistic director, Mia Michaels’ RAW
If I had just studied ballet and modern, my work would have never had the dynamics that jazz brings in. Hip hop is a different kind of hit.
Unfortunately there’s not enough work in jazz in the commercial world. Some of the hip hop choreographers are now bringing in different styles of contemporary and have more of a jazz background. But it’s a big mishmash of stuff, which is cool. There’s power and truth in all styles. I don’t think anything will ever replace anything. It’s constantly evolving.
When you look at Gregory Hines or Savion Glover or Baryshnikov or Martha Graham, they weren’t brilliant at everything. They were brilliant at what they did. That’s why they were legends. It’s great if dancers can do everything, but it’s a beautiful thing when someone has a special, unique voice. I would rather hire a dancer who is unique and interesting than someone who does everything.
Reginald Ray-Savage, artistic director and founder, Savage Jazz Dance Company
The idea of collaboration and improvisation comes with hip hop, but the better choreographers will always want trained dancers who can not only pop-lock but also know what pas de bourée, glissade, jeté means. Hip hop relies on youth: You can only spin on your head up until a certain age. But jazz and ballet require maturity, an understanding of codified movement and focus.
Acia Gray, co-founder, Tapestry Dance Company
My gut tells me that hip hop is the current jazz. Hip hop comes from the same place tap dance did—the street. They are about self-expression and challenging and one-upping each other. I’m jealous that I’m not a younger artist, because I believe if I was able to be around hip hop, I would have so much fun creating rhythms in my feet and through my body. I love modern and tap, but hip hop is quirky and versatile. It’s balletic, and at the same time it’s got popping and locking. Hip hop has definitely shadowed jazz right now. But there is a movement in our culture toward nostalgia, so I think that traditional jazz will be taken back and enjoyed by dancers and audiences.
AC Ciulla, choreographer, producer, director, teacher
Absolutely you need to still be doing jazz. Unfortunately, dancers in the industry are spending a lot less time on it. They think it’s dated. Because classes are so expensive, you’re getting dancers who are only taking hip hop or ballet. But they’re not connected. They don’t have the lines. In jazz class, you get a structured warm-up that’s a combination of technique and stretches, which you’re rarely getting in hip hop class. It’s the responsibility of the teachers and choreographers to mix it up and find ways to keep jazz on the map.
Joe Lanteri, executive director, New York City Dance Alliance
I think you absolutely have to study jazz. The majority of the work that’s still available to a young dancer requires a strong jazz and ballet base. I don’t think a strictly hip hop dancer is going to be able to fill a jazz dancer’s shoes. But it could work vice versa, depending on the dancer. Jazz has become a fusion of so many flavors and styles of dance, and that versatility is what’s necessary for any dancer to be successful. If you are talking about New York City, you are probably talking about jazz. If you are talking globally, than you’ll probably find quite a few opportunities for hip hop as well.
Interviews were conducted by Rachel Leigh Dolan, Wendy Garofoli, Lauren Kay, Emily Macel, Wendy Perron, and Cherilyn Watts