BENTONVILLE FILM FESTIVAL 2021: Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, details the history of jazz dance by presenting its inescapable connection to the complex lineage at the heart of a nation.

In the current age - of (a)historical takes and sanitized nostalgia, it's difficult to call anything "quintessentially American"  that's not baseball and apple pie (literally). But in Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, director Khadifa Wong explores jazz dance from a deeply historical perspective. Jazz dance is a celebration of a form that's undeniably the sum of its parts. Just like the United States. 

Prior to starting this documentary, I wasn't particularly interested in jazz dance. I am, however, very interested in social history. That's where the untold stories of what - and who - shaped America live.

And like most Black people, my education on the contributions of Black people didn't happen in a  classroom. Wong creates space for a highly engaging - and easily digested - history lesson that exposes the true lineage of jazz dance.

But Uprooted doesn't stop there. There's an intimate connection between the history of jazz dance and the celebratory aspects of Black life in America. The evolution of jazz dance reveals not only those connections but investigates that constantly evolving nature. 

A Cinematic Celebration of Movement

Wong describes this project as "a cinematic exploration of this art form, paying homage to its lineage, celebrating its many re-interpretations and through a fast- moving kaleidoscope of movement and music will, inspire the dancer of tomorrow to keep this art form alive." Uprooted definitely delivers on that promise. 

Creatives passionate about this art - presented through archive footage, dance montages, and interviews - turn Uprooted into a fascinating journey through time.  Through free-flowing conversation with practitioners of dance and theater as well as historians an organic chronology unfolds. One providing an unobscured examination of the form's African roots and its unmistakable impact. 

Uprooted travels from Juba dance on southern plantations to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, (the first integrated public spaces in the US). It's clear, that jazz dance is deeply enmeshed with the Black experience – from cakewalk to Charleston to Lindy hop - jazz dance truly is.

Even as the documentary's experts discuss the art form's luminaries and founders, it confronts a schism threatening to irreparably separate the form from its history. This is where Uprooted sets itself apart from other dance-focused documentaries. No one tap dances around the topic of appropriation. 

At one point, teacher and choreographer Melanie George bluntly states that the acknowledged list of "six foundering fathers" of jazz dance is not only incomplete, "[i]t is a list that has a colonist mindset." 

Lessons in Remembrance 

Pioneers like Katherine Dunham who revolutionized dance in the 30s take pride-of-place in the conversation. It includes the contributions of Patsy Swazye, Debbie Allen's (among other notable figures) first jazz dance instructor as the only teacher in Texas willing to include Black students in her classes. Traces the origins of Broadway Dance Studio back to JoJo Smith's Dance Factory. JoJo Smith (best known for being John Travolta's dance consultant on Saturday Night Fever) and his then wife Sam Samuels, revolutionized dance instruction. 

Wong craftily embeds these homages in amid the profiles of the leading figures who became known for defining jazz on stage: Cole, Fosse, Matt Mattox, Eugene Louis Faccuito (AKA Luigi) and Gus Giordano. The conversation covers Marilyn Monroe’s choreographer Jack Cole directly along side other lesser-known Black originators. 

Centering History in Teaching

Uprooted confronts the gatekeeping derailing not only individual careers but that hold back the art form. It's socially aware, even-handed, yet unflinching in its honesty. It poses questions about the obligation of current teachers and practitioners. Stressing not the duty to only preserve jazz dance but pass on the complex and rich history alongside technique. All without ever forgetting to celebrate dance itself.

These creatives and experts put on a master class for how to discuss cultural hierarchies and the need to confront them. Tying the codifying of technique to not only cultural acceptance but ownership. It's the kind of transformative conversation we all need to learn to have.

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, details the history of jazz dance by presenting its inescapable connection to the complex lineage at the heart of a nation. It's a story of reclamation, of acknowledgement, of humanity. By the end, you'll agree: it just doesn't get more "American" than jazz dance. 

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