The Charleston is a dance named for the harbor 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 and became one of the most popular hits of the decade. Runnin' Wild ran from 29 October 1923 through 28 June 1924. The peak year for the Charleston as a dance by the public was mid-1926 to 1927.
While the Charleston as a dance probably came from the "star" or challenge dances that were all part of the African-American dance called Juba, the particular sequence of steps which appeared in Runnin' Wild were probably newly devised for popular appeal. "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. 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 are of Afro-American origin, no record of the Charleston being performed on the plantation has been discovered.
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.
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. Johnson actually recorded several "Charlestons," and in later years derided most of them as being of "that same damn beat." Several of these were recorded on player piano rolls, several of which have survived to this day.
The Charleston was one of the dances from which Lindy Hop and Jazz Roots developed in the 1930s. 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 eight counts and is danced either alone or with a partner.
Frankie Manning and other Savoy dancers saw themselves as doing Charleston steps within the Lindy rather than to be dancing 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 therefore it could be the same thing attributed to Leonard Reed or something else.
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.
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'this is all with a beat of music.
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. 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. Latterly, a derivative of the Charleston, known as the 'Chevin', has been witnessed in European dance halls. The origins of the Chevin are not known, however some proponents suggest it is named after Elliott Chevin, a Serbian freedom fighter.
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".
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 emphasizing 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 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-sex partners, though women partner up with women more frequently than men partner with men.
20s Partner Charleston
In the 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.
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 "flavor".
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.
Depictions in media
In chronological order
- The 15 March 1927 film footage of a couple dancing the Charleston on the roof of a London taxi was one of the era's notable publicity stunts. The film was shot by Pathé News at Kingsway in London, and the couple was Santos Casani and Josie Lennard.
- In the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, the dance competition features the Charleston.
- In the 1952 film Belles on Their Toes, Ernestine Gilbreth (Jeanne Crain) is shown dancing the Charleston after breaking up with her boyfriend, Al Lynch (Martin Milner).
- In the 1952 film Come Back, Little Sheba, Lola Delaney (Shirley Booth), dances the Charleston for her husband Doc Delaney (Burt Lancaster).
- In The Brady Bunch 1973 episode, "Never Too Young", the family dances the Charleston in their living room, wearing 1920s-era costumes and using the original Charleston music.
- In the 1954 musical The Boy Friend, Bobby surprises Maisie and asks her to go with him to a masquerade in the song "Won't You Charleston With Me?"
- In the 1982 Doctor Who serial Black Orchid, the Doctor's companion Nyssa dances the Charleston with her double, Ann Talbot.
- Part of the late-1980s rap duo 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 the 1992 Simpsons episode "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," Kent Brockman mentions that 1927 "might have been the year where everyone remembers Al Capone dancing the Charleston on a flagpole." A clip, labeled a recreation, shows "Al Capone" doing the dance on the flagpole, and then falling.
- In the 1995 video game Mortal Kombat 3, a character named Cyrax performs the Charleston.
- In 1997 musical The Lion King, Timon performs the Charleston while luring hyenas away from Simba and Nala.
- In the 1998 Episode "Fear Strikes Up a Conversation" from season 2 of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Zelda under a case of witch-snap from being overworked suggests her a Hilda do the Charleston, which they then perform.
- The film The Cat's Meow (2001), set in November 1924, features the Charleston prominently.
- In the episode "My Old Kentucky Home" from season three of Mad Men (2009), Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy dance the Charleston at a soiree in 1963.
- In Season 9 of Dancing with the Stars (2009) and Series 7 of Strictly Come Dancing (2009), partner Charleston routines were introduced to the pro/am competition.
- In "The Great Gatsby" (1974 & 2013): The crowd of people is seen performing the Charleston by the pool and on the stairs while Gatsby introduces himself to Nick Caraway.
- Broadway Production: Runnin' Wild
- Emery, Lynne Fauley (1972). Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970. National Press Books, p.227. ISBN 0-87484-203-4.
- Emery (1972), p.228.
- Emery (1972), p.225.
- Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. Illustrated by Sondra Kathryn Wilson, Contributor Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Da Capo Press. 1991. ISBN 0-306-80431-X, 978-0-306-80431-1
- Schuller, Gunther (1968). Early Jazz – Its Roots and Musical Development, p.375. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-500097-8, ISBN 0-19-504043-0.
- Schuller (1968), pp. 158, 173.
- Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman. 2007. Temple University Press. page 49. ISBN 1-59213-563-3
- Reshown on British Pathé 1955 "This was Yesterday" reel 2, and discussion in Eve's Film Review #302.
- The Charleston at www.youtube.com
- The Flat Charleston at SilentEra