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What is the Charleston?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Charleston is a jazz dance that became popular after the 1923 musical Runnin' Wild appeared on Broadway. The dance dates back to the early 1900s and was started by African-American communities near Charleston, South Carolina. It is well-known worldwide and is often associated with 1920s flappers.

Flappers were young white women in the late nineteenth century who defied what was considered conventional for women of that time by drinking and smoking in public and by behaving in a bold and sexually assertive manner. Their style was short, bobbed haircuts, short, often fringed, dresses, heavy makeup and long strings of beads. Flappers went to speakeasies, which also defied the convention for women of that era. Speakeasies were back alley bars that ran during the American Prohibition.

The Runnin' Wild chorus that performed the Charleston was all male. Flappers would dance the Charleston by themselves or in groups at least partly to rebel against Prohibition supporters. Although the dance didn't catch on in the white community until 1923's Runnin' Wild Broadway hit, with songs by James P. Johnson, the dance was performed on stage in Harlem before 1913. It was inspired by dances from Nigeria, Trinidad and Ghana.

In the Charleston, the feet move very quickly while the arms are swinging. The heels kick outward and the knees bend in time to the music. The dancer starts with the feet together, then the feet move in front and back steps that have a bit of an energetic hop to the movements. The 1920s Charleston dance allowed for individual creativity and even in groups each dancer would add their own interpretation of the music to their dancing.

The 1920s-version Charleston developed into a swing dance rhythm in the 1930s. Many different versions of the original Charleston were created during the 1930s and 1940s. The Charleston is part of many Lindy Hop groups today and may be performed in a circle or other configuration. A caller may call out different moves such as turns on certain beats of the music for all of the dancers in the group to do.

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