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What Is the Charleston? Charleston Dance History

a person standing in front of a boat

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926 Image Source: Wikipedia

 

Charleston, South Carolina, has a rich cultural history that dates back hundreds of years. 

Its earliest immigrants were English colonists; enslaved Africans (forced immigrants) soon followed. Since it was established in 1640, it has been home to French, Germans, Irish, and Scottish immigrants.

Because Charleston has such a diverse history, it’s a melting pot of music and dance. One of the most popular dances of the 20th century has its roots in Lowcountry history — the Charleston. 

Learn about Charleston dance history, how this dance was created, and who invented it first: the North or the South. 

 

What is the Charleston?

The Charleston is one of the most popular dances and songs of all time — and especially of the 20th century. Inspired by the song of the same name, the dance was invented in 1923. 

This means that the Charleston is both a song and a dance! 

The Charleston Song

We’re all so familiar with the Charleston dance that we often forget that the song came first! 

The Charleston song was penned in 1923 by James P. Johnson and became an instant hit when it was featured in the Musical Runnin’ Wild, which was also written by the same composer. 

Most recorded versions of the Charleston were only instrumental, though the song originally had lyrics (one version featuring Chubby Checker, recorded in 1961, still features the lyrics). 

The Charleston has a catchy tune that’s a great example of a five-chord ragtime progression. 

The Charleston song is public domain, meaning it can be played and used in performances without paying royalties to the “owner”, as it has no legal owner. 

James P. Johnson wearing a suit and tie

James P. Johnson  Image Source

The Charleston Dance

The song The Charleston was written in 1923 and was first widely heard by audiences in the Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild. 

The musical also featured a dance, set to the tune of the song, also called The Charleston. Yet, this dance wasn’t totally invented in 1923, as it was based on a dance popularized by the black community — first in Africa and then right here in South Carolina. 

You can learn more about Charleston’s African American history on any of our public tours, including our Charleston History Tour and our Charleston’s Alleys and Hidden Passages Tour.

How to Dance the Charleston

Never tried the Charleston dance? The good news is that the Charleston is a relatively easy dance to do.

  1. Place your hands in front of you, fingers splayed (like jazz hands).
  2. As you slowly point the toes on your left foot in front of you, sway your hands to the left.
  3. Sway your hands to the right as you tap your left big toe on the floor next to your right.
  4. Shift your weight to point the toes on your right foot behind you as you sway your hand to the left again.
  5. Sway your hands to the right as you tap your right big toe on the floor next to your left.
  6. Continue for as long as you’d like!

There are many videos on youtube of how to dance the Charleston if you want to do it like the pros.

History of the Charleston Dance

The Charleston may have been popularized by a Broadway musical, but its origins stem far from the Big Apple.

The Charleston dance was based on a dance called the Juba, invented in Africa and popularized in the U.S. right here in Charleston (thus, its name). 

a group of people jumping in the air

Image Source

Early Charleston Dance History: The Juba

It’s believed that the Charleston actually originated from a dance called the Juba. 

Juba’s origins began in Africa, and enslaved Africans brought it to South Carolina. The Juba involves one hand that’s constantly slapping and one foot that’s always stomping. 

It was popularized in the mid-1800s. 

 

The Great Migration

The Great Migration, a phenomenon that started in the early 20th century and lasted until 1970, brought the Charleston from South Carolina to northern cities (including NYC, where it was popularized). 

Between 1917 and 1970, approximately 6 million black Americans left their homes in the South and moved up north in two waves — from 1917 to 1929 and then from 1939 to 1970.  These Americans were seeking jobs (especially in manufacturing and fleeing violent conditions in the Jim Crow South.

During these periods, black culture was also spreading to the cities and towns where these African Americans moved.

It was partially because of this phenomenon that the Charleston found its way to the Big Apple.

a group of people posing for the camera

Image Source

Runnin’ Wild

James P. Johnson certainly didn’t invent the Charleston Dance, but he did write the song that popularized it.

This song was featured in his 1923 Broadway hit, Runnin’ Wild, an all-black show that was written by Cecil Mack, who wrote the music and lyrics, and F.E. Miller, who wrote the book. 

The original musical opened on Oct 29, 1923, and closed on June 28, 1924. It featured both the song The Charleston and its famous dance. 

While this musical popularized the first wave of the Charleston, Runnin’ Wild was only the start of both the song’s and dance’s success. 

 

The Charleston’s Legacy

The Charleston lives on today. Though it may not be as popular as some other dance crazes of the 20th century, it still pops up from time to time and was quite popular for about 20 years after its big debut.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced the Charleston in the 1936 movie, Swing Time. Both the song and the dance made an appearance in the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

 

Charleston Dance Adaptations 

The Charleston originated from the Juba and was adapted throughout the 20th century. Famous dances, such as the lindy hop and mashed potato, were adapted from the Charleston.

Many of the moves and rhythms of each dance style were inspired by or inspired the Charleston. 

 

Famous Charleston Dancers 

The Charleston didn’t become famous on its own! 

While Runnin’ Wild popularized this dance originally, it became world-famous thanks to a few black women, including Josephine Baker and the Whitman Sisters.

Josephine Baker danced the Charleston throughout the 1920s, giving it a funny and whimsical feel by making funny faces while performing it.

The Whitman Sisters were black vaudeville stars who toured from 1900 to 1943, popularizing the Charleston after its inception in 1923.

a vintage photo of Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker Image Source

a group of people posing for a photo

The Whitman Sisters Image Source

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