Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
I discovered jazz dancing in my 30s, and my introduction was Luigi Jazz. It's a wonderful technique that is both a great foundation for a dancing career and an accessible and effective dance preparation for adults who want to learn to dance, whatever dance style they ultimately take up.
These days, jazz has gone out of fashion somewhat, and with it, Luigi's marvellous creation. There aren't many teachers using the Luigi technique anymore, which is a tragedy in my opinion. If you want to do a Luigi jazz class these days, you must either go to his studio in New York or buy the book!
But who was Luigi and why is his technique so special?
History of the Luigi Jazz Technique
Luigi was born Eugene Louis Faccuito, and was what we call a triple threat—he sang, acted and danced. We'll never know how great he could have been, because in the 1950s, he had a horrific car accident which nearly killed him. Doctors doubted he would ever recover from the paralysis that affected one side of his body, but they did not reckon on Eugene's determination. It took him many months, but he made it back to dance class, having developed his own system of stretching to rehabilitate himself.
His face never recovered from the paralysis and he suffered from poor vision for the rest of his life, which meant he could no longer aspire to major roles in musicals. However, his body recovered well enough that, only a year later, he was asked to audition for the chorus in the Gene Kelly movie On the Town. On The Town is also where he became Luigi. Like many men named Eugene, he was called "Gene" for short. Gene Kelly felt it was too confusing to have two dancers with the same name, so Luigi he became.
Luigi's part in the movie wasn't large, but because of it, he initiated a revolution in dance training! During the long, tedious breaks between takes, Luigi would do his exercises to keep himself moving and prevent his muscles from seizing up. Other dancers saw them and started joining in; sometimes he would have 10 or 20 dancers lined up behind him, copying his moves. Even Gene Kelly became an enthusiast.
In fact, he had created the first formal system of jazz technique. Before long, he was teaching classes while still appearing in movies, TV and Broadway musicals. Over the next eight years, he kept in regular work on movies like An American in Paris, Annie Get Your Gun, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon and White Christmas—over 40 films in all.
In 1956, he decided to concentrate on teaching, first in Los Angeles and later in New York. His studio, opposite the Lincoln Centre, became a Mecca for dancers. Over the years, his students included many big names, including contemporary dancers like Twyla Tharpe and film stars like John Travolta. Liza Minnelli first met him on her father's film set when she was just three years old, and during her career she studied with him for many years. She even insisted that her backup dancers go to his studio. In 2012, she went back to his classes to help her recover from a broken leg.
The school is still operating and is still faithful to his method.
Luigi Technique for Adult Beginners
Before I started Luigi jazz classes, I was a ballet nut. I loved my ballet classes, but was never as good as I wanted to be. I started far too late, and my turnout and flexibility were never going to be equal to the demands of more advanced ballet moves.
The only reason I enrolled in a Luigi class was because I'd moved to another city in my 30s, and there were no adult ballet classes available. It was either jazz dance or join a class of 13-year-olds! I decided to give the jazz dancing a try. I ended up falling in love with it.
A Luigi jazz class gave me the same full-body-stretch feeling I got from ballet class, the same skim-across-the-floor sensation... but it also made me feel grounded and tall at the same time. My flexibility and balance improved out of sight in just a few months. Finally, my high kicks really were high, and the sense of freedom of movement was quite intoxicating. I felt like a real dancer at last. Not bad for a 30-something late starter! I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that Luigi's jazz technique worked so well. After all, he invented it to get his own out-of-shape, damaged body working again. But I knew nothing about its history at the time.
Jazz dance used to be the foundation for all Broadway dancers. These days it's been overtaken by other styles, which is a pity. Jazz is gentler on the joints than ballet because there's no turnout, it's earthier and funky while still stretching and mobilizing the body, and it's easier than modern styles with all their popping, locking and snapping. I've even found its isolations invaluable in my study of belly dancing.
It's hard to explain why the Luigi technique is so special but I recommend this article by Bill Waldinger, who teaches both ballet and Luigi style.
I'm sad to report that Luigi passed away in April 2015, aged 90. You can read the New York Times obituary.
© 2010 Kate Swanson