Expression and Experience: Growing with Jazz Dance

by Waresa Hu

I clearly remember the hodgepodge of feelings in my stomach as I began my first year of college nearly three years ago. I was looking forward to the excitement of a new city, the abundance of clubs and organizations offered and the endless opportunities that would comprise my college experience. Nonetheless, as an introvert, the idea of making friends and introducing myself to strangers was terrifying.

I lived in the dorms my first year, where I met a friend who was taking lyrical dance at the ARC and recommended the dance classes they offered. I thought the classes would be a perfect way to meet people who share a common interest and try a new hobby. My friend was interested in taking another dance class, so we decided to sign up for something neither of us had ever done, and jazz worked best with our schedules. Classes met once a week for 50 minutes for a total of $45. Signing up was super simple and quick, as all I needed to do was make an account, select the class I wanted to take and input my payment information.

Before the first class, I felt inexperienced, lost and anxious what shoes do I wear, how should I stretch, where do I stand? Not knowing the little things made me feel unprepared and scared of what I had gotten myself into. I looked at my friend nervously to see how he was feeling, and I could sense the same nervousness. There were a few other people who trickled in, and then we got started as soon as the instructor came in and set up.

Jazz dance, I later learned, is rich in African-American history and shares the same vernacular as ballet and tap dance. Jazz originated in the 1800s, and one characteristic is its isolation movements, where the whole body stays still except for one part. The class mixed contemporary, classical and Broadway jazz to create a fun and energetic environment. Most of the students in the class were all beginners, which meant there were no embarrassing moments. We were all learning together and enjoying the process of it all.

We started each class with a warm-up that raised our body temperature and encouraged fluidity. We would follow with a combination of isometric stretching and dynamic stretching to reduce possibilities of injuries and maintain flexibility. The instructor would use a lot of dance terms that we soon began to pick up on. We would perform plies that targeted the inner thighs and glutes to strengthen the lower body. Following plies, we would do pirouettes, which is a rotation of the whole body on one foot. Pirouettes are all about maintaining concentration, focusing on a focal point and stabilizing the center of your body.

I had very minimal dance experience before this class, but the instructor explained and demonstrated the dance moves with such patience and grace that I was able to  grasp the movements. Each week we learned new choreography paired with a new song that the instructor picked. The songs ranged from Broadway jazz numbers to modern-day pop. The full range of genre offered more variety and expanded my perspective of what jazz consisted of.

Although I did not leave the course as a professional dancer, I gained more confidence and strength that I didn’t know I possessed. Dance is a powerful and beautiful art that allows you to express feelings, emotions and actions. Jazz, especially, relies on technique, style and form. The instructor taught us the foundational dance steps, but she gave us autonomy to decide what to do with our hands or how we wanted to move our heads. As a dancer, your attitude, emotions and movements are all interconnected to captivate and enchant the audience. By using your personality and performing a wide range of motions, dance captures your expressions and story.