Theatrical jazz dance innovator Jack Cole (1911–1974) forever changed the face of theater dance by mixing ethnic movement with jazz – what he dubbed “urban folk dance”. Culling movement from the dance forms of East India, Africa, the Caribbean, Cecchetti ballet technique and the Lindy hop, Cole transformed theatrical dance into what we now recognize as American jazz.
Born John Ewing Richter in New Jersey, Cole was a runaway who first joined Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn’s Denishawn dance company as a teenager, remaining a part of Denishawn, 1930–32.
Cole then joined the troupe of former Denishawn students Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, getting his first taste of Broadway by performing in The School for Husbands, a Humphrey-Weidman choreographic venture. He was dismissed after six months for chronic tardiness.
Cole studied the Indian dance technique bharata natyam with master Uday Shankar. He also explored Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and South American dance, foreshadowing the intense research he would complete for each of the Broadway shows he later choreographed with authentic ethnic-infused movement.
After dancing with Denishawn Jack started his own dance group that he began booking for nightclubs. The type of dance he was obsessed with at this time was “Oriental” or Asian dancing as well as Indian dancing, Flamenco and Lindy Hop.
His unique act ended up turning towards the nature of a musical. He later created several musicals; he was heavily involved with Ziegfeld Follies. Cole had a unique style of dance, he was not afraid to incorporate sensual movement, bumps and grinds into his acts. Jack’s new creative dance style really brought the “taboo” out into the open, but in a tasteful way!
Improbable as it seems, the Indian influence would still be visible when Cole devised Marilyn Monroe’s most famous dance routine, the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend sequence.
Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became Cole’s best-known number. It’s been borrowed by performers including Madonna and Kylie Minogue. For 1953 it was wildly over the top.
With Marilyn Jack was working with a great star who wasn’t really a dancer. Yet he makes her move superbly. He knew that Marilyn totally understood her own sexuality and sensuality. He took that and surrounded her with men so there was nothing but sex on that screen.
Marilyn was so feminine in that number and he let her float on top of that, with just tiny shrugs of the shoulder or a little turn of the neck. It’s one of the great movie dances!