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14 The Legacy of Gus Giordano Michael McStraw Pioneers, inventors, visionaries: more often than not, these agents of change make their contributions from afar, secure inside laboratories, warehouses, or offices and removed from the world they intend to alter. In stark contrast, Gus Giordano—the twentieth-century jazz dance innovator, master educator , and choreographer—positioned himself firmly in the heart of the discipline , grappling with rhythm, sinew, gravity, and form. His was a process of creating alongside dancers whose lives he transformed. Earthy, masculine, and a charismatic everyman who possessed an exceptional work ethic, Giordano built his dance legacy one turned-in leg at a time. His contributions to jazz dance are vast, and his role in transforming it into a credible American art form cannot be overemphasized. Gus created the powerful and joyous Giordano Technique, established the Giordano Dance School (1953), formed Giordano Dance Chicago (1963), the first dance company devoted to jazz dance, wrote the highly acclaimed Anthology of American Jazz Dance (1976), and launched Jazz Dance World Congress (1990), an internationally recognized forum for teaching, performance, and choreography. But what was at the core of Gus Giordano? What was that essential something that made these innovations possible? Marked as special from the moment of birth, August Thomas Giordano III was born to an immigrant Italian family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1923. Gus was the fourth son born, but only the second to survive beyond infancy; the non-surviving brothers before him were also August Thomas, thus his entry into the family as “the Third.” His was a life shaped by a proud and supportive family; early and 103 continual exposure to dance (his cousin was a stage performer), movie musicals (he sold popcorn outside a local cinema), and film making (he won a movie camera in a neighborhood drugstore contest) prepared him for a life immersed in movement and performance. Perhaps most important, the perception that Gus was lucky, a survivor, was the impetus for creative risktaking throughout his career. His daughter, Nan, artistic director of Giordano Dance Chicago, said, “My father was king because he survived.”1 Despite this domestic dynamic, merely surviving was not enough. Gus’s growth and development from his first dance experiences, through high school, service in the Marines, college on the GI Bill, performing on Broadway , and on into marriage and fatherhood, were echoed in the creation of the Giordano Technique and in the core of his teaching philosophy: focus, become a master at what you do, seek out and incorporate disparate influences , dance from your soul, and give back what you have learned. In his time, it was as if he perpetually stood at the center of an hourglass, filtering everything—aesthetics, techniques, and styles. From this nexus, he distilled, reshaped, grabbed onto, and discarded until that which was released was fresh and exciting, freely spread, and freely shared. Ever the innovator, Gus Figure 14.1. Gus Giordano teaching Giordano Technique, 1983. Photographer unknown. From the archives of Giordano Dance Chicago. 104 · Michael McStraw pushed his dancers to be aware of the shifts and transitions within the art form, or as Nan Giordano likes to say, to “stay on the pulse.” This point of view of knowing one’s place in life clearly colored Gus’s perspective as an artist. “I know one thing for certain about jazz dance,” he said. “It is a living art form which is always about to do something new.”2 His efforts were acknowledged early on. Master teacher Joe Tremaine recalls Gus’s impact. “In the 1950s, jazz dance was beginning to find its look. I had a teacher who studied with Gus Giordano in Chicago, and she integrated some of his moves into her classes—head and shoulder isolations. It was very innovative at the time.”3 From Giordano’s perspective, the burgeoning art form of jazz dance was not static, rigid, or rarified; rather, it was an exploration of all that the human body could achieve. Moving through space with grace, strength, and freedom, “jazz dance celebrates sensuality. Its character is not romantic, like ballet, nor is it highly reflective like modern dance.”4 His vision for jazz dance was far from pedantic or sedentary; to the contrary, it was immediate and urgent. Choreographer and former Giordano Dance Chicago company member Sherry Zunker has written, “Gus was passionate about proving that jazz dance is just as valuable as other art forms.”5 Gus did not have a classically proportioned body. His...


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