18 Inspirational 20th Century Vintage Jazz Dance Videos  

Rachel Green
6.6k views 18 items

Jazz dance and jazz music took the world by storm during the first half of the 20th century, filling ballrooms and clubs with live music, youngsters dancing, and Vaudeville shows, turning the corner from a previously stiff, Anglican culture to a vivacious, robust, and energetic world that reflected the industrial boom of the time. 

The jazz dance is a derivative of African tribal dance, borrowing its rhythmic, improvisational nature, and European partner dancing, which provided the structured way in which partners connected and stepped in time with one another. Seeing its first incarnations as early as the turn of the 20th century, jazz dancing bloomed into what would later be dubbed the original American folk dance and one of the most important and historical dances in American history.

The videos here were not only footage of influential events, like rare footage of African-Americans dancing the Cakewalk and displaying some of the first times improvisation was used in such a structured dance, but they're also some of the most referenced snippets of film today that swing dancers use for inspiration and education, such as Whitey's Lindy Hoppers' most famous dance piece from Hellzapoppin'. They feature some of the most celebrated jazz dancers in history, such as Frankie Manning, Josephine Baker, and the Nicholas Brothers, as well as a variety of dances that fall under the jazz and swing dance umbrella: Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, and vernacular jazz dancing.
Hellzapoppin' (1941)
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Though the movie has absolutely nothing to do with dancing, this is the most iconic and popular Lindy Hop clip of all time, featuring Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from Harlem, the most prestigious jazz and swing dance troupe of all time. Frankie Manning, the ambassador of Lindy Hop (in the coveralls) dances with his partner, Frida Washington, in the last shine before the final ensemble sequence.

The final sequence, known as the California routine (aptly named after the state in which it was choreographed by Manning) is now one of the most popular and well-known routines in swing dancing.
Keep Punching (1939)
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Keep Punching features The Big Apple, a line dance created in The Big Apple night club in Columbia, South Carolina during the 1930s. Originally a call-and-response dance, much like square dancing, The Big Apple's roots can be found in ring shouts from the 1860s, a religious dance done by slaves on Southern plantations in which dancers move in a circular formation while shouting and clapping.

This particular version was choreographed by the legendary Frankie Manning, who although he had never actually seen The Big Apple, choreographed based on only what he had heard about the dance. Though it was supposed to be used for Judy Garland's 1937 Everybody Sings, it was later cut due to a dispute involving proper payment for the dancers.

The Big Apple became such a sensation around the country that Time magazine called 1937 the year of The Big Apple. Manning's iteration of the dance sensation is still regularly performed around the world today.
Maharaja (1943)
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While Lindy Hop was the prevailing swing dance in New York City amongst the black community, Balboa was taking shape in SoCal and was danced primarily by the white community.

Created on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, California, jazz clubs playing hot numbers would be so tightly packed that the dancers were forced to dance chest to chest. 

Though similar to Lindy Hop, an untrained eye can see that Balboa dancers spend much more time dancing close together, whereas Lindy Hop dancers spend more time moving away from each other. 

This short features Hal and Betty Takier, some of the best Balboa dancers in history.
Stormy Weather (1943)
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The Nicholas Brothers, featured in this clip of Stormy Weather (as well as the illustrious Cab Calloway and his orchestra) were some of the most rhythmically attuned dancers of the 20th century. They were the pioneers of tap dancing, paving the way for generations to come. Fred Astaire told the two brothers that it was, "the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen."

Plus, look at all of those splits. Hot damn!