The Charleston Dance

1920s flapper

When you think of the 1920s, you immediately have an image of a woman with bobbed hair dancing the Charleston dance, her legs kicking up with abandon. Considered one of the most scandalous dances of its time, the Charleston dance was a social dance popular in the 1920s and came to symbolize the Jazz Age.

How to Do the Charleston Dance

Music for the Charleston is a ragtime jazz played in 4/4 time. The dance is comprised of a series of up and down movements executed by bending and straightening the knees. The dancer kicks her heels forward and backwards. Dancing the Charleston is simple to do.

  • Step forward with the right foot and touch forward with the left toe.
  • Step backwards with the left foot and touch back with the right toe.
  • Dancers can incorporate their own variations to add their own personality to the dance.

Where Did It Come From?

The Charleston dance originates in the African American community. African Americans who lived on an island off the coast of Charleston, SC, developed the dance in 1903. The Charleston has its earliest origins in Central Africa. Tribes in Africa perform similar movements in their dances. After its first appearance in 1903, the Charleston popped up at various:

  • Social dances
  • Contests
  • Amateur performances

When southern blacks migrated up north to New York, they took the Charleston with them. In 1913, performers danced it for the first time in Harlem theaters. It did not receive widespread attention until it was adopted by the flappers, women who shortened their skirts and bobbed their hair.

The Flappers

During the 1920s, young women longed to shrug off social restraints. They stopped wearing corsets and favored looser clothing. The Charleston was the perfect dance for their new rebellious outlook on life. The Charleston's popularity continued to grow as the flappers danced it with careless abandon in the clubs.

Runnin' Wild in New York

In 1923, the Broadway show Runnin' Wild featured the Charleston as part of the performance. Runnin' Wild was one of the first professional black shows in the U.S. The choreographer of the show, Elida Webb, created dancers focused around the exuberant dance. The performers danced it in accompaniment to the song The Charleston, written by James P. Johnson. Both the song and dance became a massive hit.

Dancing Over to Europe

In 1925, famed performer Josephine Baker introduced the dance to Europe when she danced in the Parisian show La Revue Négre. As a result, Europe went wild over this African American dance and clamored for more. Hollywood film star Joan Crawford danced the Charleston in her 1928 movie Our Dancing Daughters. The dance craze swept around the world, even influencing men to learn the steps. This was the first time a men enthusiastically participated in an American dance craze. In fact, people from all walks of life and every social status danced the Charleston.

The Dance that Keeps Kicking

It is still danced by those who are involved with Lindy Hop culture since the Lindy Hop of the 30s and 40s sprung from the Charleston. Ironically, the rap duo Kid N Play, popular in the 80s and 90s, brought back the Charleston and renamed it the Kid and Play or Funky Charleston. Their version of the dance first appeared in the music video Gittin Funky. They also featured the updated version in their movie House Party where they had a dance off in one section of the film.

The Charleston is an important part of American history and still captures the imaginations of people who love music and dance. You can still find people today who like to dance the Charleston. Just log on to the popular YouTube website and you'll find plenty examples.

From its humble beginnings in South Carolina to the bright lights of Broadway, the Charleston swept the world up in a frenzy of frantic dancing. The Charleston symbolized the carefree attitude of the flapper who rejected social decorum and pursued a life of pleasure and excitement.

The Charleston Dance