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HomeEntertainment‘The Jazz Continuum’ explores Black social dance — from past to present

‘The Jazz Continuum’ explores Black social dance — from past to present


To connect with the Lindy Hop, a form of swing dance born in Harlem in the 1920s, you can look beyond the Lindy Hop.

At least that’s the premise of “The Jazz Continuum,” running at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 17 and 18. According to the vision of this performance-meets-party-meets-historical-eye-opener, there are echoes and affinities that link the historic dance style to more recent modes such as hip-hop and house.

Staged in different iterations at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and elsewhere, the production celebrates the decades-spanning ties between manifestations of Black artistry in music and dance, including social dance. Expect DJing, improvisation, tributes to hoofin’ legends such as Earl “Snakehips” Tucker and “Queen of Swing” Norma Miller, nods to musical styles including dancehall and go-go, and more.

“It’s not just a dance show. It’s not just a music show. It’s not just a show,” says “Jazz Continuum” creator LaTasha Barnes, an acclaimed dancer, choreographer, scholar and Army veteran. She calls the production an offering to “the truth of the continuum” in Black American music, dance and culture.

“That is to say, of American music, dance and culture,” she adds. “Because, if we’re honest, from the Black music experience and the Black dance experience, absolutely, we get what we call popular dance and music in America — and globally.”

As for the “jazz” part of the title, Barnes says, it refers not only to jazz music and dance, but also to jazz-associated traits such as “innovation, the coolness, the willingness to integrate all of the things around you to make something beautiful and evocative.”

This edition of “The Jazz Continuum” will be tailored to the Washington area. Local artists will help shape the piece during a five-day residency with Barnes at the Kennedy Center and then perform in the production.

D.C.-area specialties like hand-dancing — a type of swing dance — and Beat Ya Feat, a dance style rooted in go-go music, are likely to make an appearance.

Barnes, 43, is from Richmond, where she grew up in a family so passionate about dance that they had their own line-dance routine. “If you couldn’t keep up with the steps, they very gracefully guided you farther back in the formation,” she said by phone from Phoenix, where she is a member of the faculty of Arizona State University.

Barnes’s family also has a tradition of military service. At age 18, she enlisted in the Army, working in satellite communications in Europe and at the White House Communications Agency.

Before concluding her military career with the rank of sergeant first class, she was hit by a car and seriously injured. When a physical therapist recommended dance therapy, Barnes signed up for a class in popping, a dance style based in muscle contraction and release.

The practice accelerated her healing. “Dance literally gave me my life back,” she says.

From there Barnes got involved with Urban Artistry, a Silver Spring, Md.,-based nonprofit group focused on performing and preserving urban dance. Through relationships with other artists, she gained a keen appreciation for dance forms like the Lindy Hop and house.

Barnes became a whiz at house, typically performed to house music with rapid, intricate footwork and rippling movements of the torso. In 2011, she and a teammate won in a partnered category at the Paris-based Juste Debout competition, a prestigious forum for house dance.

She also began to notice patterns. “I was able to put together points of alignment, from authentic jazz dances through to contemporary hip-hop and other street/club dance forms,” she says. “And I became interested in how they lived and influenced each other.”

As an example, she points to a technique seen in house: stalking, in which dancers mirror, or riff off, each other’s movements. In Barnes’s view, stalking — a way to commune creatively with another person — echoes the partnering of Lindy Hop.

Barnes’s fascination with dance intersections has an intellectual component — at New York University she designed and completed a master’s degree in ethnochoreology, Black studies and performance studies. But it also, she says, “gave something really different and rich to my movement.” Her realization that other dancers, too, wanted to explore these intersections spurred her creation of “The Jazz Continuum.”

Interest in the show may testify to its canny balance of exuberance and historical and artistic insight. Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of dance and international programming, says she doesn’t know of any project that explores Black dance history in quite the same way. The line of inquiry is especially valuable, she says, because “social dance is such an important piece of the fabric of society.”

For Diyanna Monet, a D.C.-based multidisciplinary artist who performed as a dancer and DJ in the Boston edition of “The Jazz Continuum” and will return for the Kennedy Center run, the production has been a revelation. She now sees jazz as the link between the way people move on the street to her own particular passion: the fusion musical style that is new jack swing.

“I see jazz in the way people speak,” Monet says. “I see jazz in the way people dance and how they’re able to sequence their phrases and make it all make sense.”

Conceptual heft notwithstanding, it was the sheer ebullience of “The Jazz Continuum” that wowed dancer and American University lecturer Ama Law when she saw it at Maine’s Bates Dance Festival in July.

“We were all dancing in the aisles,” says Law, who will perform at the Kennedy Center. “I mean, there was a point in the show where we just couldn’t even sit still anymore.”

As Barnes says, “The Jazz Continuum” is an opportunity “to experience community joy.”

The Jazz Continuum Nov. 17-18 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.



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