Charleston (dance): Wikis


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Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926

The Charleston is a dance named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The rhythm was popularized in mainstream dance music in the United States by a 1923 tune called The Charleston by composer/pianist James P. Johnson which originated in the Broadway show Runnin' Wild[1] and became one of the most popular hits of the decade. Runnin' Wild ran from 10/29/1923 through 06/28/1924.[1]



While it developed in African-American communities in the USA, the Charleston became a popular dance craze in the wider international community in the 1920s. Despite its origins, Charleston is most frequently associated with white flappers and the speakeasy. Here, these young women would dance alone or together as a way of mocking the "drys," or citizens who supported the Prohibition amendment, as the Charleston was then considered quite immoral and provocative.

While the Charleston as a dance probably came from the "star" or challenge dances that were all part of the dance called Juba, the particular sequence of steps which appeared in Runnin' Wild were probably newly devised for popular appeal.[2] "At first, the step started off with a simple twisting of the feet, to rhythm in a lazy sort of way. [This could well be the Jay-Bird.] When the dance hit Harlem, a new version was added. It became a fast kicking step, kicking the feet, both forward and backward and later done with a tap." Further changes were undoubtedly made before the dance was put on stage.[3] In the words of Harold Courlander, while the Charleston had some characteristics of traditional Negro dance, it "was a synthetic creation, a newly-devised conglomerate tailored for wide spread popular appeal." Although the step known as "Jay-Bird", and other specific movement sequences like the snare stare are of Afro-American origin, no record of the Charleston being performed on the plantation has been discovered.[2]

Although it achieved popularity when the song "Charleston", sung by Elisabeth Welch, was added in the production Runnin' Wild, the dance itself was first introduced in Irving C. Miller's Liza in the spring of 1923.[4][5]

The characteristic Charleston beat, which Johnson said he first heard from Charleston dockworkers, incorporates the clave rhythm and was considered by composer and critic Gunther Schuller to be synonymous with the Habanera, and the Spanish Tinge.[6]

Charleston was one of the dances from which Lindy Hop and Jazz Roots developed in the 1930s, though the breakaway is popularly considered an intermediary dance form[citation needed]. A slightly different form of Charleston became popular in the 1930s and 40s, and is associated with Lindy Hop. In this later Charleston form, the hot jazz timing of the 1920s Charleston was adapted to suit the swing jazz music of the 30s and 40s. This style of Charleston has many common names, though the most common are Lindy Charleston, Savoy Charleston, 30s or 40s Charleston and Swing(ing) Charleston. In both 20s Charleston and Swinging Charleston the basic step takes 8 counts and was danced either alone or with a partner.[citation needed]

Charleston today

Today Charleston is an important dance in Lindy Hop dance culture, danced in many permutations: alone (solo), with a partner or in groups of couples or solo dancers. The basic step allows for a vast range of variations and improvisation. Both the 1920s and Swinging Charleston styles are popular today, though swinging Charleston is more commonly integrated into Lindy Hop dancing.



Charleston can be danced solo, or with a partner its simple, flexible basic step making it easy to concentrate on styling, improvisation and musicality.

Whichever style of Charleston one chooses, whether dancing alone, with a partner, or in groups, the basic step resembles the natural movement of walking, though it is usually performed in place. The arms swing forward and backwards, with the right arm coming forward as the left leg 'steps' forward, and then moving back as the opposite arm/leg begin their forwards movement. Toes are not pointed, but feet usually form a right angle with the leg at the ankle. Arms are usually extended from the shoulder, either with straight lines, or more frequently with bent elbows and hands at right angles from the wrist (characteristics of many African dances). Styling varies with each Charleston type from this point, though all utilise a 'bounce'.[citation needed]

Solo 20s Charleston

Solo 20s Charleston has recently gained popularity in many local Lindy Hop scenes around the world, prompted by competitions such as the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown (in 2005 and 2006 particularly) and workshops in the dance taught by high profile dancers such as the Harlem Hot Shots (formerly known as The Rhythm Hot Shots) and a range of independent dancers. Usually danced to hot jazz music recorded or composed in the 1920s, 20s solo Charleston is styled quite differently to the Charleston associated with the 1930s, 1940s and Lindy Hop, though they are structurally similar.

Solo 20s Charleston is usually danced to music at comparatively high tempos (usually above 200 or 350 beats per minute, with tempos above 300 BPM considered 'fast'), and is characterised by high-energy dancing. Faster movements are often contrasted with slower, dragging steps and improvisations.

As it is danced today, solo 20s Charleston often combines not only steps from dances associated with the 1920s (such as the Black Bottom and the Cakewalk), but also jazz dance. The most valued form of solo 20s Charleston combines choreography with improvisation and creative variations on familiar dance steps. Above all, the most popular and most "successful" solo 20s Charleston dancers respond to the music in creative ways to express themselves.

Solo 20s Charleston is often danced in groups on the social dance floor or in formal choreography.

Solo 1920s Charleston Competition

Solo 1920s Charleston competitions often utilise elements of the jam circle format, where individual competitors take turns dancing alone for the audience (usually for intervals of a phrase or number of phrases). Competitors move forwards to the audience out of an informal line, usually taking advantage of this movement to perform 'strolls' or other 'travelling' steps, taking the opportunity to "shine".[citation needed]

Despite the emphasis on solo dancing in these sorts of competitions, there is often much interaction between competitors and between the audience and competitors, frequently in the employment of comic devices (such as "silly walks" or impersonations) or showy and physically impressive "stunt" moves. This type of interaction is typical of the call and response of West African and Afro-American music and dance. In this call and response, audiences and fellow competitors encourage dancers with cheers, shouts, applause, physical gestures and other feedback.

This sort of competition structure is increasingly popular in Lindy Hop communities around the world, providing added challenges for dancers, new types of pleasure for audiences and emphasising social dancing skills such as improvisation and musicality. This structure also echoes the cutting contests of jazz music which Ralph Ellison describes in his stories about live jazz music in the 1930s.

Partner Charleston

Partner Charleston uses the basic step described above, though stylistic changes over the 1920s, 30s and 40s affected the styling, as well as ways of holding a partner. Traditionally partner charleston was danced by a man and woman, but now - as then - both men and women dance with same-gender partners, though women partner up with women more frequently than men partner with men.

20s Partner Charleston

In 20s partner Charleston couples stand facing each other in a traditional European partner dancing pose, often referred to as closed position which aids leading and following. The leader's right hand is placed on the follower's back between their shoulder blades. The follower's left hand rests on the leader's shoulder or biceps. The leader's left hand and the follower's right hand are clasped palm to palm, held either at shoulder height or higher. Partners may maintain space between their bodies or dance with their torsos touching. The basic step is for the leader to touch their left foot behind them, but not to shift their weight, on counts 1 and 2, while the follower mirrors the motion by touching their right foot in front of them without shifting weight. On counts 3 and 4, both partners bring their feet back to a standing position, but shift their weight onto the foot they have just moved. On counts 5 and 6, the leader touches their right foot in front of themselves while the follower touches their left foot back. On 7 and 8, both feet are brought back to the standing position where the necessary weight shift occurs to allow the basic step to repeat.[citation needed]

30s and 40s Partner Charleston

30s and 40s Partner Charleston involves a number of positions, including "jockey position", where closed position is opened out so that both partners may face forward, without breaking apart.

In "side-by-side" Charleston partners open out the closed position entirely, so that their only points of connection are at their touching hips, and where the lead's right hand and arm touch the follower's back, and the follower's left hand and arm touch the leader's shoulder and arm. Both partners then swing their free arms as they would in solo Charleston. In both jockey and side-by-side Charleston the leader steps back onto their left foot, while the follower steps back onto their right. In "tandem Charleston" one partner stands in front of the other (usually the follower, though the arrangement may vary), and both step back onto their left feet to begin. The partner behind holds the front partner's hands at their hip height, and their joined arms swing backwards and forwards as in the basic step.

There are numerous other variations on these holds, including "hand-to-hand" Charleston, and countless variations on the footwork (including Johnny's Drop, freezes, Savoy kicks and so on). Names for each vary in different local lindy hop scenes, though most have historic names associated with their creators or people in the community of the day. Aria Zapata and Teresa were the most famous dancers at the time.


In swing dance or Lindy Hop communities today, both solo 20s Charleston and solo swinging Charleston are often danced in groups arranged in a loose circle on the social dance floor, in two long lines of facing dancers (evenly spaced) or in other formations in more strictly choreographed performances.

They may choose to follow steps 'called' either by a designated Caller or by each dancer in turn. In this called context, the group perform the same step for a Phrase (music), or until the new step is "called". Individual dancers often improvise within the structure of the called step, bringing their own personal "flavour".

There are many local variations on this group dancing, including the following. One person will typically call out a variation (such as turning 360 degrees in place on counts 5-8), which is then done by everyone beginning the next measure and again for the following 2 measures. If the caller doesn't call another step immediately, the dancers return to the (default) basic step. Switching sides is sometimes called, upon which the dancers hop on the left foot across to the other side on counts 5-8, turning 180 degrees to the left.

In the more casual social group context, individual dancers may choose to dance "alone", improvising in response to the music or copying dancers around them.

Tap Charleston

Tap Charleston (1925 to 1926): Leonard Reed was said to have invented Tap Charleston after he learned tap in 1925. Tap Charleston was the Charleston with breaks into open position to do tap steps. The connection between Breakaway and Tap Charleston is murky. It could be the same thing attributed to Leonard Reed or something else.[citation needed]

Depictions in media

  • Charleston on the roof of a taxi: The film shot of a couple dancing on top of a London taxi was one of the era's most notable publicity stunts. The film was taken by Pathé News, released 15 March 1927. The couple were Santos Casani and Josie Lennard, and the location was Kingsway in London.[7] Casani and Lennard also performed in a short film The Flat Charleston recorded in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system, and released in December 1926.[8]
  • In an episode of "The Brady Bunch" 1969-1974, the family dances the Charleston in their living room, wearing full 1920's flapper costumes and using the original Charleston music.
  • In the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, the dance competition features the Charleston. George Bailey and Mary Hatch (played by James Stewart and Donna Reed) are featured.
  • The Charleston features prominently in the 2001 film, The Cat's Meow, starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies.
  • Part of Kid 'n Play's signature dance move, The Kid 'n Play Kickstep involves many of the Charleston's dance steps. The lyrics of the song "Do The Kid 'n Play Kickstep" from Kid 'n Play's 2 Hype LP outlines the Kickstep's moves and mentions the Charleston by name.
  • In Season 9 of Dancing with the Stars and Series 7 of Strictly Come Dancing, partner charleston routines were introduced to the pro/am competition.

See also


Aria and Teresa:)

  1. ^ a b Broadway Production: Runnin' Wild
  2. ^ a b Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970. Lynne Fauley Emery. page 227. National Press Books. ISBN 0874842034.
  3. ^ Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970. Lynne Fauley Emery. page 228. National Press Books. ISBN 0874842034.
  4. ^ Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970. Lynne Fauley Emery. page 225. National Press Books. ISBN 0874842034.
  5. ^ Black Manhattan. By James Weldon Johnson. Illustrated by Sondra Kathryn Wilson Contributor Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Da Capo Press. 1991. ISBN 030680431X, 9780306804311
  6. ^ Early Jazz - Its Roots and Musical Development. Gunther Schuller. 1968. Oxford University Press. pages 148, 173 19-500097-8 0-19-504043-0. ISBN
  7. ^ Reshown on British Pathé 1955 "This was Yesterday" reel 2, and discussion in Eve's Film Review #302.
  8. ^ The Flat Charleston at SilentEra

External links


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