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Juilliard Dance

Published: July 6, 2007
Category: history

Luigi, Gus Giordano, and Matt Mattox: Jazz masters

By Rachel Straus

With syncopated hip, rib, and head isolations, jazz dance doesn’t ignore the body’s sexiness. It puts it front and center. The high-decibel energy trumpets cool confidence, regardless of whether the movement is lyrical, hard-edged, or silly. Like jazz music, jazz dance didn’t develop inside the conservatory or concert hall. But having drawn as much from ballet’s long lines as from the cacophony of a good street party, today it is recognized for its technical prowess.

The jazz technique we know today developed from three artists who are now master teachers: Luigi, Gus Giordano, and Matt Mattox. Each of them performed in Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals during jazz dance’s boom following World War II. They took the swinging, striking, funky sensibility and shaped it into a viable technique in the United States and abroad.

LUIGI After a car accident left him paralyzed and visually impaired at age 21, Eugene Louis Facciuto taught himself to walk and then dance again by repeating like a mantra “Never stop moving. Never stop moving.” No longer leading-man material because of cross-eyed vision and a partially paralyzed face, he became the go-to chorus man, appearing in films like On the Town, An American in Paris, Annie Get Your Gun, Singin’ in the Rain, and White Christmas. During breaks on film sets, Luigi stretched to prevent further injuries. In 1951 he held his first class based on his self-preservational movement studies; five years later he moved to New York City. Because Luigi’s technique emphasizes smooth transitions, nearly constant motion, and symmetry, his classes attract dancers seeking physiological balance.


* The warm-up begins with the arms stretching alternately overhead.

* As with ballet, epaulement is constantly used to locate core balance in the body.

* Isolations of the head, shoulders, and rib cage are done delicately.

* Instead of a barre to hold on to, the arms are out to the side, the forearms and palms face the floor, the elbows are lifted, and the shoulders are gently shrugged for a release of tension. The total effect allows for an invisible support system for the upper body.

* Most classes end with Luigi’s iconic walks: One hand is placed on the hip and the opposite arm is slowly raised overhead. These walks are equivalent to a bow to the audience and to oneself.

GUS GIORDANO While Luigi calls his codified technique the first in jazz dance, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, founded by Gus Giordano in 1962, was one of the first troupes dedicated to bringing jazz dance to the concert stage. Giordano drew on disparate influences: the earthy, African-based sensibility of Katherine Dunham’s technique; the regal upper body of classical ballet; and the music of composers like Jelly Roll Morton. Pattie Obey, who teaches the Giordano technique throughout the United States, Mexico, and Europe, says it nurtures dancers by helping them find their voice: “He would let us just explore.”


* Isolations, ballet legwork, syncopations, and floor exercises culminate in one long combination.

* Key ingredient: moving the entire body while isolating different parts at once.

* Key look: an elongated neck, a lifted chin, and eyes focusing down and out.

* A deep plie gives a lower sense of gravity.

MATT MATTOX Mattox’s ability to move with ballpoint ease, pinpoint precision, and catlike agility remains legendary. His artistic mentors included Jack Cole and Eugene Loring, whose fusion of ballet, modern, and jazz served as a template for Mattox’s “freestyle” approach. Known for rhythmically complex and physically demanding classes, Mattox’s style evolved in Hollywood, London, New York, and France. Though his classes, which jazz teacher Bob Boross describes as “ballet with isolation on top,” were originally designed to help people get work in musical theater, they are now a way to improve any dancer’s technique. In his combinations the ability to be up in the air and down on the floor “count after count,” says Boross, is accomplished through “a completely relaxed feeling in the body.”


* The warm-up is called the “barre”: each anatomical zone is pinpointed.

* Isolations of the arms, feet, head, and rib cage are done simultaneously!

* In the final combination, the lack of emotion is cast off, and exuberance reigns.

Rachel Straus is a freelance writer based in New York City.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Dance Magazine, Inc.


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