Charleston dancer

Charleston dancing in the 1920’s

The Charleton dance started at the dawn of a new age after the ravages of the war to end all wars, World War I. The air was filled with an exuberance for freedom and the pleasures of life. The Charleston dance symbolized the emergence of a new enthusiasm for breaking free from the constraints of war. It was the era of the Roaring Twenties and the Flappers. The term Flapper came from the flapping of the arms that was common in Charleston dancing. The Charleston started a dance craze in the twenties that evolved into many decades of swing dancing.

The swing dances include the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug,  East Coast Swing during the 1940’s & 50’s to the West Coast Swing of the 1960’s and all the other different types of swing dances through to the present. While some dances like the Black Bottom vanished and never reappeared, the Charleston, both solo and partner styles, endured and can still be seen in present day dances. 

In the early nineteen hundreds, mostly Afro-Americans danced the Charleston until it was popularized in the 1920’s by Broadway plays, musicians and dancers. 

The Charleston became popular along with the Flappers. Marathon dance contests with cash awards and prized were also popular during the 1920’s. Many marathon dancers included Charleston moves in their dancing. Eventually promoters, who charged admission and hired emcees for the dance marathon events.

Charleston flapper

Many parts of culture thought the Charleston was scandalous and wild. There were numerous attempts to prohibit or at least discourage it. Due to the obsession with the many dancers had with the Charleston dance, they spent many long hours dancing the Charleston. Doctors and hospitals were seeing more leg and arm injuries like tendonitis due to this obsession with the dance. They used this fact to try to diminish the enthusiasm for the dance but failed.

It continued being wildly popular until the Great Depression in 1929 when there was little to be happy about and life took a tragic turn away from the gaiety of the Roaring Twenties. World War II followed the Depression, so there was no returning to the Epicurean pleasures of the nineteen twenties. The Great Depression and World War II brought an end to much of the blissful pleasures and freedom’s of the Roaring Twenties but the Charleston and Swing dancing has remained an integral part of American culture ever since.

Some historians suggest that the Charleston may have early roots among the Ashanti in Africa as far back as Roman times. There are similar dances among African folk dances in Trinidad, Nigeria, Ghana and Haiti. It is also attributed as  part of a West African dance genre found in the Caribbean and in the the south known as Juba. There was an Afro-American community in the early 1900’s that danced the Charleston near the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, where it got its name. It evolved as a blend of African and European rhythms and dance influences into the popular dance genre from the twenties through the present day forms of the Charleston in the Lindy Hop and other swing dances.

The Charleston was introduced in an all black stage play called Liza by Irving C. Miller in 1922. It was popular among black musicians but not part of the mainstream American culture until later. The Ziegfeld Follies also included some Charleston in 1922 & 1923. Finally, it was popularized in the 1920’s with Broadway song, “The Charleston,” by James P. Johnson (Fats Waller’s jazz piano teacher) from a Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild,” which ran from 1923 to 1924. Also, Josephine Baker danced it in a Parisian show “La Revue Negre,” at the Folies Bergere, Paris, 1926 after which the Charleston took off in Europe.

Originally the dance was considered scandalous because of its free swinging arms, legs and twisting body movements. The Flappers and other women who danced it, freed themselves from the restrictions of movement, moving them toward a new liberation. The Flappers defied convention by drinking during prohibition, cutting their hair short into bob styled haircuts, wearing shorter skirts (knee length) and dancing together on the dance floor.

Because the Charleston was incorporated into the Lindy Hop and other swing dances (styles of swing dances), it survived through the decades unlike the other popular dance of the era, the Black Bottom. A solo dance called the “Mashed Potato,” which was popular in the early 1960’s has some resemblance to the earlier solo Charleston using a twisting of the feet.

Other forms of Charleston became popular in the 1930’s associated more with Lindy Hop: Lindy Charleston, Savoy Charleston, 30’s Charleston, 40’s Charleston, Swinging Charleston, Tap Charleston, breaking into tap dancing during the Charleston.

Charleston patterns still exist in present day dance genres like the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, East Coast Swing  and West Coast Swing.

In the 1980’s & 90’s, some hip hop dancers incorporated a variation of the Charleston into their dance routines. It has appeared in many different movies and continues to be a part of American culture to the present day.

Charleston Characteristics

Charleton dancing

  • Swinging arms in a contra motion
  • Fast footwork with a twisting action
  • Toes in heels out then heels in and toes out
  • There is a pulse or bounce

Dance Patterns

  • 1,2 Left foot steps forward, 3,4 Right foot kicks forward, 5,6 Right foot steps back, 7,8 Left foot kicks back
  • Arms move opposite of the legs
  • Basic Step: the right foot steps back, left foot kicks backward, return to starting position and the right foot kicks forward – the arms swing in contra motion to the feet, e.g. right foot forward, left arm forward.
Charleton flapper attire

Charleston Dance Music

 Ragtime Jazz

  • 4/4 Time with syncopated rhythms
  • New Orleans/Dixieland Jazz

 Songs 

  • Charleston Ain’t We Got Fun,
  • Toot Toot Tootsie,
  • Yes Sir! That’s My Baby

Movies

  • It’s A Wonderful Life James Stewart & Donna Reed
  • Our Dancing Daughters Joan Crawford 1928

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