"Uprooted" documentary spotlights the journey of jazz dance

To be honest, when it comes to the five stages of grief, I—as a dancer—am pretty deep into stage 4: depression. When quarantine started, I imagined my life would be affected for maybe a month at most before things would return to normal. I’d be back taking class, auditioning, and attending live performances in no time, right? showed up over and over for virtual dance classes and initially felt energized and motivated to research, write about, and watch a lot of dance online. But as the magnitude of COVID-19 slowly and steadily set in, dancing—I mean really dancing—began to feel ever farther out of reach.

Pre-pandemic, I had been anxiously awaiting the premiere of “Uprooted”—a feature-length documentary about the history, lineage, and future progressions of jazz dance. But it’s been four months since I’ve seen the inside of a dance studio, and I now felt apprehensive to finally get to view the film. As I watched, my body ached, yearning for that expansive, communal, energetic sensation. I miss the joy, rhythm, freedom, and ecstasy that seem to wash when I get the opportunity to dance. I imagine every dancer who watches this film during COVID-19 will feel a similar nostalgia. At the same time, however, my heart and mind still experienced many of those emotions. Even though I can’t physically dance in the same space, with the people, or in the same way right now, my chest swelled with hope that we’d be back there soon. “Uprooted” makes the viewer feel like a student in the dance studio, a performer on stage, a teacher at the barre, and a choreographer in rehearsal…It leaves you inspired by the art form, inquisitive about your own understanding (or lack thereof), humbled to be a small part of the history and community, and determined to keep the movement—both literally and figuratively—alive.

“Uprooted” explores the evolution of jazz dance, from its roots in African American slavery where movement was conversational, improvisational, and subversive, to its modern-day branches and offshoots on Broadway, in commercial dance, and woven seamlessly into pop culture. The dissident dance style (sometimes called “the bastard of dance”), is ever-evolving. But its foundation is characterized by polyrhythms individuating against an expected beat, poignant social, political, and cultural commentary, and the practice of “stealin’ steps” to continue the process of sharing and evolving the art form.

When we study jazz dance in the dance studio, conservatory program, or higher ed institution, we usually learn about the predominantly white men who codified jazz as a style in the 1930s thru the 1950s: Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Luigi, and Matt Mattox, to name a few. This documentary, however, illuminates how assigning ownership is a capitalist convention that goes against the very nature of jazz: collective, free, and deep-rooted in African American history. All the stories, voices, and movements that make up jazz dance are valid. But when our full understanding of the history is lacking, we run the risk of misappropriation. “Uprooted” opens up this critical conversation within the dance industry…How jazz can maintain its organic aesthetic and be codified and taught in the studio, how we can make a stronger effort as dancers, educators, and creative artists to explore the full history of jazz dance so we can properly honor and attribute the art that we perform today, and how jazz can be taken more seriously both within the dance community and far beyond.

Over several years of production, the film’s creative team ventured to New York, Charlotte, Chicago, Greensboro, Providence, Los Angeles, Calgary, Toronto, and Paris to capture beautifully shot dance B-roll footage as well as interviews with dancers, choreographers, and educators including the likes of Chita Rivera, Andy Blankenbuehler, Al Blackstone, George Faison, Debbie Allen, Mandy Moore, Joshua Bergasse, Graciela Daniele, Susan Stroman, Camille A. Brown, Travis Payne, Baayork Lee, Phil LaDuca, Jason Samuels Smith, Jerry Mitchell, Melanie George, Bob Boross, Billy Sigenfeld, Tom Ralabate, Lynn Simonson, Robin Gee, Arlene Philips, and many others. The roster of performers and experts is utterly astounding. There is no “God-like” narrator to guide us along, but rather a multitude of jazz artists themselves. (*Side note: Some younger dancers and non-dancers might be unfamiliar with many of the people featured in the documentary. I highly encourage you to write their names down and research them afterward.)

And now, the big finish—My only critique of the film is that I wanted more. But that very lingering feeling is the marker of a successful documentary…It stirs viewers to explore, to question, to converse, and ultimately to act. Before we all reunite dancing together in the studio and on the stage, I acknowledge how much I took my art form for granted (and that goes beyond just doing it). Perhaps now is finally my opportunity to change that. Who's with me?

“Uprooted” will premiere virtually at the 48th Annual Dance on Camera Festival on Sunday, July 19th at 7 pm ET. Tickets may be purchased at danceoncamerafestival.org.


© 2020 by Mary Callahan