The Electrifying UK Jazz Dancers of the 1980s

During the 1980s in London and other Northern UK cities and towns, an underground movement of dancers and DJs were creating a wild, frenzied, and electrifying style of dance called “Old School Jazz Dance,” or simply “Jazz Dance.” A blend of vernacular jazz, tap, ballet, West Indies and African dance traditions, these UK jazz dancers were known for their intricate footwork, incredible tricks, and tireless energy.

They danced in underground clubs, or “All Dayers” where music would play from 2pm to 11pm. You could go to spots like Jaffas or The Electric Ballroom in London and dance all night to legendary DJ Paul Murphy, would would spin be-bop, fusion, and other high-tempo jazz for dancers.

The Dance

What they present is something totally different. And what they are doing is not “jazz dance” not “old time dancing.” What they are doing is club dancing, elements of old time dancing, shuffling, West Indian dancing, all mixed up together.
— Stewart Avon Arnold , choreographer

Watch these videos of some of the incredible dancers who pioneered this art. You can see so many classic jazz and tap steps, but combined with so many other influences, and done to a frenetic pace. I get exhausted just watching them.

Here’s the legendary IDJ (I Dance Jazz) crew in a TV production called “Alter Image.” 

Their style and energy is so incredible, with an emphasis on intricate, very fast footwork, jazz splits, knee drops, and spins. 

Here’s IDJ dancing to a live band in 1986.

The Dancers

british jazz dancers.jpg

This was primarily a dance practiced by Black male dancers, from poor, immigrant communities in the UK. Dance historian Jane Carr describes this as a mostly underground movement of marginalized Black people seeking their own means of expression and freedom. While drawing from American influences, they saw themselves as creating something uniquely theirs, and not simply recreating an American artform. 

Pioneers of this jazz dance style include the groups Body Function,The Jazz Defektors, IDJ, Jazzcotech, The Floor Technicians, Brothers in Jazz, and the Backstreet Kids.

Check out this incredible dance contest between two of the most popular crews, IDJ and the Backstreet Kids. (Notice how the announcers mention that the Backstreet Kids actually have a white female dancer in their crew as something notable.)

Of course there are dancers who keep alive this tradition today. Jazzcotech is dance company specializing in “Underground UK Jazz Dance.” Here’s a performance of their’s from 2011.

Frankie Manning famously returned from his service in WWII to find that jazz music had shifted from the swing era into be-bop. He couldn’t find a way to engage with that newer form of jazz. He recounts a gig where he and other dancers were performing with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1947. 

I had given Dizzy our music, but when we got out on stage and started dancing, it sounded terrible. “Jumpin at the Woodside” is a swinging tune, but this drummer was dropping all these bebop bombs on us. We were up there trying to do our routine, but because of the way the music felt, we kept doing all these jerky movements. We just couldn’t swing to what he was playing… For the rest of the week, we had to struggle through the way the drummer played our charts. I remember thinking, I guess this is the kind of music we’re going to have to try to dance to.
— Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop (2007)

So it’s remarkable that these young Black dancers in the UK had found a way to engage with these newer forms of faster, frenetic jazz, take inspiration from the past, add their own cultural influences, and create something totally unique.

I want to learn more about these incredible dancers!

More Videos and Resources

Check out this YouTube playlist I put together that includes many more incredible dance videos from that era. Warning: it’s a deep rabbit hole!