Jazz Dance = Joy!

Billy Elliot the Musical
Image via Wikipedia

When I tell people I take a jazz dance class — while limping with every step — they think I’m nuts.

Which may well be true!

I’ve been dancing in classrooms, (and even for a week on the stage at Lincoln Center, as an extra), since I was a little girl who, like many, dreamed of becoming a ballerina.

As if.

I auditioned several times for the National Ballet School, a highly selective process that anyone who’s ever watched Billy Elliot might appreciate.

Unlike Billy, I didn’t make the cut, being told, firmly, I had the “wrong body” for ballet. Um…it’s the only one I have! Ballet is severely unforgiving in its demands of a highly specific body type: high arches, terrific turnout, a long waist, tiny hips and breasts (that must remain so after puberty.)

So I added jazz dance to ballet in my 20s, taking five classes a week. If you’ve ever watched a musical live or on film, you’ve felt the infectious joy of jazz dance — edgy, quick, sexy, playful.

I only take one class a week right now, as it’s all my wretched left hip will allow. And my battements, (kicks that should skim my shoulders or at least get that high), look more like degages at this point. But still, I can do a lot more than any physician would think (or suggest) and the benefits are many:

I’m sweat-drenched within 15 minutes.

I loathe” exercise” and machines but have to lose weight and stay strong somehow.

There’s a wide range of body type in my small class, mostly women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Several of us are definitely larger than others, yet all of us move with grace and style, our feet and hands able to flash and flicker in time with the music, the rhythm as much a part of us as our eye color.

People are glad to see me there, encourage whatever progress I make, and miss me when I’m absent for a while.

Great music!

A huge gym flooded with light all to ourselves.

Twenty minutes of stretching, something it’s too easy to overlook when doing other forms of exercise.

A link to my athletic, carefree past.

A weekly reminder that, whatever my current physical limitations, they’re not 100 percent. That reminder inspires me out of the studio as well.

Here, my aging and injured body is still strong, flexible and graceful — not just damaged and painful. Women in an era that loathes anyone female over a size 6 who is not highly decorative, (that’s just about any era of the 21st and 20th centuries for North Americans!), need a place where their bodies are useful to themselves, a source of joy and power, not just something their husbands, children and/or employers rely on.

We use our head, shoulders, feet and arms, often independently, for beauty and pleasure — not for mere locomotion or other basic functions.

It’s what we do with our muscles and limbs — not just the size or shape of our hips and breasts — that matters here.

Movement! There is much we can express through our bodies. What a blessed respite from words.

Here’s a recent review of a book about one of the greatest jazz dancers ever, Fred Astaire.

What sport or physical activity brings you joy?

11 thoughts on “Jazz Dance = Joy!

  1. LOVE this post. I grew up dancing. I danced for the Nashville Ballet until I was 12, when I was suddenly way too tall and “big-boned” for the genre. I’m kind of glad, in retrospect, because the quicker dances are always more fun 🙂

  2. That is SO cool. Then you’ll enjoy the insanity of my having been a “super” in Sleeping Beauty with Nureyev (!) at Lincoln Center for seven performances. The most fun story I’ve ever reported….and the scariest. We did not even get a dress rehearsal!

  3. Farin

    I’m all for “dance as exercise.” I took tap for a spell and had a blast, and I’m thinking of starting with zumba once I get a full time job and can actually pay for classes.

  4. Wonderful Caitlin…good for you 🙂 I am in the same boat needing to lose weight and get fit. I bought some DVDs of exercise with Leslie Sansone which are very good, but I want something else to change what I do. I have always liked to dance, but have not done any in years. The other day I saw a report about the Zumba dance exercise, and they even have one for those 50 and over. There was a huge group of ladies, ages into the 90s and they were having a blast. So I want to check it out. http://www.zumba.com/ 🙂

  5. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

    I took tap a few years ago and would love to do it again. I’d never really taken dance before. I’d also like to take jazz or lyrical. And part of me wants to explore belly dancing. I don’t know when or if I will ever pursue any of these, but they are on my list. Meanwhile I started swimming again today and it felt good.

  6. Phil

    As an avocation, I coach High School girls basketball (my nickname of Up2DaRack means attack the paint and bring the ball “up to the ‘rack’, or basket.” I have a good friend whose daughter both played with us and took ballet dancing as well. She was always among the best jumpers on the floor and was tireless. I asked her about her jazz and ballet dancing, and she told me it was an excellent workout, every bit as rigorous as our conditioning sessions. It occurred to me it might be interesting and a nice change of pace for my team to have some variety in their conditioning regimen, so I asked if her instructor would run a half-hour workout at the gym for us. She agreed, and said she would bring over a few helpers. What a session that turned out to be!

    The coach in me was rather stunned to watch and realize the sheer power involved in movement with grace. Our players were not only stunned at how much they could stand to learn about power, quickness, movement with agility, and leaping with incredible ease, they were downright exhausted in that half-hour from the physical demands of if it all. So popular was this routine, that we do it once at the beginning of each season, and mid-way through. A number of my players have since signed up for her dance classes and we get the benefit of a skilled mentor on how to better use movement and agility skills when it comes to footwork.

    Basketball demands lots of coordination and is a very physical and punishing game in a tight environment. What I learned is Jazz / Ballet dancers are no shrinking violets. In fact I may have found a new secret recruiting ground for basketball players who can move with grace, agility and power on the floor. My new secret weapon.

  7. What a great comment!!! Thanks so much for sharing this cool story.

    I am not at all surprised (having played basketball, albeit competitively) that the two would be completely complementary. I think there is often an artificial and truly false perception on the part of athletes playing traditional sport that dance is, like…recreational dancing. Fun! Shake your hips to some fun tunes.

    As you and your players know, dance class done seriously IS fun but it also requires tremendous self-awareness and control. That can only translate well to any sport at any age.

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