Solo jazz is one of the best ways to help you improve your Lindy Hop. Lindy hop is a partnered dance that gives a lot of freedom to each partner. Even when dancing in close position or in a break away or swing out, there is so much freedom to improvise and express the music with your feet.

Every single great Lindy hopper in the old times and now are great solo jazz dancers. No wonder why? One truly can’t be without another.

Have you ever been in the situation where your partner decides to break away for some solo jazz magic, and rather than free, you felt alone, and very unsure? Do you often feel you are out of time, or blame others if you do feel that way? Or maybe you've seen a video of yourself afterward a couple dance and realised you may not look quite as elegant as you thought in that moment...then these tips are for you.

1. Want to dance well in couple, learn how to dance solo first

If you are struggling with balance, or, for instance, rotations and turns which is very common, when dancing Lindy hop, consider trying solo jazz. Practice those elements solo first and as a result you will massively improve your Lindy hop. The truth is your partner is not there to help you hold your balance or turn you. Your partner is there to communicate and co -create in a dance together. If you want to improve your Lindy hop, invest in your solo.

In order to learn how to turn, keep balance, and have a good posture you really need to practice those dance elements by yourself first.

When learning Lindy hop we are focusing on leading and following technique. Basically, how does communication in a couple happen, how can one body invite another body into different states and figures. But the essential, fundamental elements of jazz dances, like bounce (pulse), timing, syncopation, footwork, turns and many many more,  shall be practiced and learned in solo jazz, and independently of another person which is essential.

When you are confident in those, being in a couple and dancing Lindy hop will feel heavenly.

2. Improve your Lindy Hop by expanding and innovating your footwork

Develop intelligence in your feet. Only you are in charge of your footwork when dancing Lindy hop.  Your partner is not going to “inject” variations and lead you for solo steps. You have to work on that part yourself solo. The absolute best way to improve your footwork in Lindy hop is to work on your solo jazz.

What is in your feet is in your feet.  If you ever looked at professional Lindy hoppers and dreamed of being so playful and reactive with your feet, do know that it comes from solo jazz dance work. If you know how to do Shorty George and kick ball changes you can add a flavour during the 6 beat passes. Tacky Annies, Apple Jacks, Suzie Qs and scissor kicks can come in very exciting and handy when variating swing out. Lock turns can be a fantastic way to make your turns and under arms passes something spectacular and juicy.

3. Shine at the solo moments

I am sure you once were dancing with (or maybe you yourself is) a playful partner who loves once in a while to let the couple connection go for a moment of solo conversation. And maybe during that moment instead of going for a spotlight move you felt left alone, embarrassed and begging your partner to please come back into the safe shell of the couple...?

In this case, solo jazz is the way to happiness and jazz. Learn a couple of classic vernacular moves like boogie back, boogie front, TOBA break,  to know what to do and take the spotlight. Or even learn how to improvise in order to be fully reactive and in the moment respond to the moves of your partner. And if you want to be completely on top of your game, unlock Secrets of improvisation technique to be able to create a few exciting moves or variations and have a call and response conversation  with your partner.

So doing, you feel the music, you feel your partner and the two of you, together with the music will create a perfect, balanced triangle.

When you are dancing with your partner, for that two and a half to three minutes, you are in love with each other. You're corresponding with each other by the moves that you make. It's a love affair, between you and your partner and the music. You feel the music, you feel your partner, she feels you and she feels the music. So the three of you are together. You've got a triangle, you know. Which one do you love best? [Frankie laughs.]

- Frankie Manning

 

4. Variate your Lindy hop moves

The whole point of jazz is improvisation. Once the patterns, basic footwork and figures are in your system, fly away and variate them.

Improvisation and personality are the key points and characteristics of African derived black dances. Jazz is a continuum and its nature is to be continuously evolving with the influences of time and other people. Jazz is a continuous innovation based on strong tradition.

Let’s be honest, that is where the real fun in Lindy hop lies, - in creativity. In order to be creative with your body and footwork mainly, for jazz dances are footwork based dances, we need to learn the principles and the secrets of improvisation and variations. To do that we once again come to the home of solo jazz.

Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker lindy hop and solo jazz
Leon James & Willa Mae Ricker doing the Lindy Hop, 1943, photo by Gjon Mili, via LIFE.

In order to learn how to variate your triple step in swing out, it’s essential to understand what is triple step, how it can be done, what is swinging 8th note and syncopation. Finally, what are the ways and tools to variate a given step! Same goes for rock step, which is as well one of the most common steps in Lindy Hop and swing dances.

It’s this understanding and knowledge which will make a difference and progress. You can learn by doing solo jazz. Eventually, you will be able to dramatically improve your Lindy hop and shine on every single send out and triple step swivel.

If you are specifically interested in Variations, you can check a 4 volume online course "Variation Lab".

5. Don’t only feel good when doing the Lindy hop, look good

Dance is an aesthetic form. Dance is a combination of feel, time and shapes. And shapes shall be aesthetic. No matter much we emphasise the importance of the feeling when dancing swing dance, dance should as well look good.

Good lines and style don't only come from feeling good doing a move. That works as well, no doubt. Though, in some situation to get the right feel, you need to copy the shape of the move.

What “good look” means in a dance is an almost philosophical category indeed. Aesthetic does not necessarily mean beautiful.  To give an example, the famous choreographer  Bob Fosse invented his own signature style with the idea of “ugly movement”. Though he transformed “ugly” into aesthetically beautiful.

 

However in Lindy Hop the emphasis is mostly on the feeling. The feeling of your partner, lead and follow signals. In some ways you can forget to pay attention to how you are looking when you are dancing. Practicing Solo Jazz we practice the feel and the shape in a holistic way. We do look in the mirror to make sure the shapes are balanced and aesthetic. Working on your moves and shapes solo will significantly improve your Lindy Hop.

6. Find your style

We shall as well talk about the style. To have a style, your own recognisable style, is to be on top of the jazz game. We all have different bodies hence same move will, of course, look different on each one of us.

Unlocking the secrets of your movement and bringing out your own style can be a long process. But it’s a journey for a treasure worth taking. You can spend some time researching your body, your movement solo in front of the mirror or camera. Ask yourself what are your strengths? What exactly makes your movement yours?

Jean Veloz swivels are so distinctive. You can recognise her angular shapes with loads of shoulder and hip movement and upright posture.

And now look at Jewel McGowan with her fabulous extreme knee swivels and the arm behind.

One more interesting female Lindy Hopper Genevieve Grazis (Jenny Grey) P.S. Don't mind the clap on 1.

Look at The Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning and Willa Mae Ricker. The style is called Savoy Style. Low, fast and fierce. Frankie was the innovator and a creator of an acrobatics in Lindy. You can see he is bowing so low to his dance partner on the breakaway moments, when doing the kick back.

And here is Dean Collins with Bertha Lee gliding. Dean Collins has this impatience in his footwork. It's fast and energetic. Though the upper body stays "concentrated", almost bracing. You can see he is doing his signature turn in the solo moments.

7. Develop a body awareness

Practicing solo jazz helps you develop a body awareness and consciousness that is often not trained in Lindy hop classes. In a general Lindy Hop dance class you may focus more on connection, new moves to learn with your partner or just social dancing. In solo jazz, because of its individual nature, you really focus on yourself.

You are the only responsible for your feelings and aesthetic in your solo  dance. You feel bad at improvising?  Then start again, go through solo jazz vocabulary.  Play some games to make the process more enjoyable (check out Ksenia’s Method “practice games”) Look at yourself in the mirror and try to improve what you don’t like. A step a day, and it will get better

8. Develop your sense of confidence

Quite often in partner dance we are dependent on the other person to dance with us. Hence if we have great timing and they don’t you can try to help them, even though it can feel uncomfortable. Equally if you have bad timing and your partner is amazing, they can guide you, and so you become dependent on their timing. You then switch to another dancer, who doesn’t have such good timing and now you are both lost.

Before we go blaming the other dancer, thinking it must be their fault. To  dance well with dancers x,y,z, it is important we know our own timing is solid, balance is good and footwork is clean. Yet again solo jazz dance will show you this, in an instant! There is no one to blame, no one else to look at but yourself .

Try to increase your confidence starting from learning how to solo dance, you will see how much better you feel while dancing in a couple.

If you would like my help with some of these tips and put them into practice, visit my online dance school Secrets of Solo. You can check subscription plans here.

The Charleston dance was "The King of dances" in 20th century and had a huge influence on American culture.  In this blog you can find out different ways of how to do the dance, its technique and footwork.

Charleston dance history

Charleston is a name of the city, dance style, step and song. Scholars attribute the spread and invention of the geechee inspired Charleston dance to the Jenkins Orphanage Band boys from Charleston city, South Carolina. The Charleston song written by John P. Johnson, inspired by Gullah rhythms, became the signature tune for the dance.

This dance has African roots and was created by African - American people. It was first sighted in the streets of Harlem in 1903. Though it was popularised by young flappers during 1920's. It became internationally known thanks to Josephine Baker Parisian "Le revue negre".

If you'd like to learn about the origins of the dance there is a full blog on The History of The Charleston dance. 

6 version of how to do the Charleston step

In order to know how to do the Charleston “basic” step we should know that it has changed with time and place. It started as a step with twists, then transformed into a crazy wild kicking move with the swing era.
There are at least 6 versions of the “basic” step: groove walk, kicks, swinging kicks, 20’s twist, 20’s glide, and afro version “reverse twist” Charleston. Each version has its specifics.

  1. When doing groove walk, we should remember to keep a steady and strong bounce (pulse).
  2. For kicks the most important thing is to keep the right timing of the kick step and kick from the knees.  All while keeping the body inclined forward and only forward and making sure to move with the kicks and not to stay on one spot.
  3. 20’s Charleston style with twists has its thing in a constant (every single beat) energetic though light twisting of the feet with the weight on the balls of the feet. All while making the kick up in the air and accentuating the weak (off) beat.
  4. 20’s glide is similar to 20s Charleston twist but is done without lifting the feet off the floor this way creating continuous gliding on the floor.
  5. Finally, to do the reverse Charleston twist we shall keep the legs bent low and keep the whole foot on the ground with the weight mainly of the heels.

In this video you can learn 6 basic versions of how to do the Charleston “basic” step: groove walk, kicks, swinging kicks, 20’s twist, 20’s glide, and afro version “reverse twist”.

35 Charleston variations

Here is a video of two legendary dancers Al Minns and Leon James perform jazz dances talk show "Playboy's Penthouse". You can hear Marshall Stearns discusses the dance history with Hugh Hefner. This was probably filmed around 1960. Stears explains that there were 35 variations of the Charleston step. Minns and James show a few: original 20's charleston, scare crow, squat, around the world, high kick and hand to hand variations.

How to do the 20s Charleston dance style?

20s Charleston is not only a step, it’s a style. A style that is defined by music, clothing style, manner and expression. 20s Charleston was a craze during the Jazz Age. It is danced to ragtime, hot jazz and charleston.In order to look authentic we should remember a few important technical elements on how to do the 20s Charleston:

  1. As it is danced to ragtime and hot jazz (early jazz, Dixieland, New Orleans jazz). The music is syncopated and has a “rag” rhythm though it is still quite even. The accentuation is on 2 and 4 and so will be the bounce, as the bounce always reflects the music rhythm.
  2. As the music is ragged and the body can embody this quality the best when being more “puppet” like. It is better if we use more joints rather than muscles for the light, ragged, fast movements of 20s Charleston
  3. The accentuation is on 2 and 4 and so should be the accent when doing the 20s kicks. The accent is in the air and not on the floor.

Aesthetics of the 20s

There is a lot to learn from seeing the connection of the Charleston dance aesthetics with cultural elements of 20th century America.

You will look super authentic if you will include those qualities, impressions in your dance.

Its important to mention that this dance was immensely popular during the period of 1920's Prohibition as well as 1930's Great Depression. When US stock market crashed and part of the society was left in complete poverty, dancing for many was an anti - depression pill. It swept the worries away.

Look at the fantastic Bee Jackson, the “Queen of Charleston” and get ideas on how to do the Charleston! Miss Bee Jackson of the Piccadilly Cabaret and Kit Kat Club demonstrates her gimmick - dancing on a very small floor space.

 

In this demo video you see me demonstrating the concept of a “Silent Movie”. I am slowing down and speeding up in the real time (without FX), while searching for exaggerated overly dramatic face expressions. The idea comes from the fact that the music was layered on silent movies after the film was done. Oftentimes the music played an atmospheric role. Therefore the dance and movements looked out of time with the actual beat of the song.

Animalism and African roots

I'd like to accentuate the connection with animalism in dance movements as the Charleston dance belongs to the family of African-American vernacular dances. To know more on what are the characteristics of African-American dances that as well reflect in the this dance, read the blog on “ A brief cultural history of black dance” 

In this video class from the course Secrets of Charleston 20s, where you can learn how to do the step called the “Cow Tail”. Animalistic move, in a way it was inspired by the cows waving their tail to get rid of the flies.

 

All of this and more you can learn by taking a course Secrets of Charleston 20s, course with over 40 video.

Iconic Charleston dancers

Some of the iconic dancers to watch, learn and get inspired:

Josephine Baker
Ann Pennington
Bee Jackson
Al Minns
Leon James
Mildred Melrose
Joan Crawford
Jenkins Orphanage Band boys

In this video playlist on Secrets of Solo channel I collected videos of the most famous dancers, historical figures. Watch to get inspired.

 

The difference between 20s & 30s style Charleston

As we mentioned before the Charleston dance style has changed with time and music. I use this categories to spotlight the difference that was strongly affected by the music, more specifically rhythm section.

20s

In 20s Charleston with hot twists and eccentric moves was danced to ragtime, hot jazz music. It has half time pulse and accentuated the 2 and 4 beat. It replicates the bass tuba or the double bass. Bass tuba line for early jazz was either 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. When double bass came to stage, the players wither played half time notes or doubled up on the same note twice. 1/2 feel reflects in half time pulse in the dancers body. The movement is more even, more vertical and ragged.

The 20s style is based on the twists and twisted kick. The most important image is the "crossed" twisted leg. The legend says, some dancers got "Charleston twist" of the knee, when they twisted too hard.

In this video you can hear a very rag song. Notice that the dancers are holding their bodies more upright. Their pulse is ragged (even jumpy at times).

30s

In 1930's the dance changed with swing music to so called lindy kicks. You could see now dancers doing big wide kicks and travelling across the floor. The feel of the Charleston is 4/4 (4 on the floor). It reflects the double bass in swing tunes, that has a walking line. So called "walking bass".  Musicians say "the bass walks", when the player hits every single note. 4/4 feel reflects in constant pulse in the dancers body. The movement is "spreading", it is more horizontal. It looks softer and smoother.

In this video you can hear the 4/4 feel on the bass and clearly see how dancers reflect it in their smooth pulse. Note, when dancers go to lindy Charleston kicks, how much they lower their upper body and start to hover over the ground.

 

 

 

Music to dance Charleston

Ragtime

The first tune you would think to dance Charleston to is, of course, famous ragtime tune "The Charleston", written by James P. Johnson. The Charleston beat is considered a clave rhythm.

As a musical entity ragtime was, and is, an instrumental work in 2/4 time composed for the piano. The style surfaced in the early 1900's and was developed by composer Scot Joplin. It was the forerunner to jazz. It combines a syncopated series of melodies accompanied by a steady, even rhythm. The left hand plays a steady, almost march-like succession of bass notes and chords while the right hand plays syncopated melodies in a "ragged" manner. Hence, the name of the style.

Here is a Spotify playlist of ragtime tunes. You will hear the music of Eubie Blake, Scot Joplin, James P. Johnson.

Dixieland

Other music style that one can dance 20s Charleston is early jazz.  Early jazz, that is as well called “New Orleans jazz”, Dixieland jazz, hot jazz are the terms referring to the same style of jazz based on the music that developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century. Its 4 main influences were ragtime, military brass bands, the blues, and gospel music.

New Orleans jazz or Dixieland Jazz was incredibly popular through the 1920s, Jazz Age. One of the first uses of the term "Dixieland" with reference to music was in the name of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (later changed to "Jazz"). They recorded their first vinyl in 1917. What defines the sound of Dixieland music is that one instrument plays the melody (often trumpet) and all the other musicians improvise around it.

Here is a Spotify playlist with a very popular songs for 20s Charleston. You will hear music of such artists as Original Dixieland Band, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman and other. Or else you can listen to my  YouTube Charleston compilation.

 

Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

Any of us that dance swing surely love the Charleston dance! But so few of us know the history, where the dance originated. Although we all have an image of white rich flapper girls, dancing the charleston, smoking cigarettes and smiling on screen, do we really know who invented the first steps that came to be The Charleston dance? How did the dance come to be? And how did it get its name? Why are there so few images of Black Charleston dancers?  I can tell you now, it may not be as simple as it was named after the city and popularised by flappers. Here I hope to answer some of those questions. Come take the journey to understanding the rich past of this dance form.

The Charleston dance belongs to the family of African-American vernacular dances. More specifically it is an authentic jazz dance as it was done to jazz music (“hot jazz” and originally the ragtime)  combining elements derived from improvised African dance moves with syncopated jazz rhythms.

1800’s - Juba dance as the early origin of the Charleston

Enslaved Africans brought it (The Charleston dance) from Kongo to Charleston, South Carolina, as the Juba dance, which then slowly evolved into what is now known as Charleston. (...) In African, however, the dance is called Juba or the Djouba. The name Charleston was given to the Juba dance by Europeans much later when they came to America
- Africanisms in American Culture, p.52


The Juba dance or hambone , originally known as Pattin' Juba, is an African American style of dance. This one-legged sembuka step, over-and-cross, arrived in Charleston between 1735 - 1740. It involves  “patting” ("Pattin' Juba") stamping, slapping the chest and arms and clapping. While Juba is a word used for songs sung in plantations.

Even in the 18th century the Juba dance (today known as Charleston) was so popular that a premium was placed on black domestics who would be good Juba dancers to teach the lady of the house some steps.

“Geechie” steps Gullah culture as the origins of the Charleston dance

There are so many amazing stories of the origins of the Charleston dance. In my research I had to check and double check to see which might be the right one. However, as anyone digging into history knows, there is always some subjectivity as to what is “the truth”, so here are all the sources I could find.

According to Frankie Manning, from the book  “Ambassador of Lindy Hop”, the Charleston may have been based on a step called Jay - Bird, and is said to have originated in South Carolina, Charleston, where it was sighted in 1903.

So what happened in South Carolina, Charleston? In 1891, In Charleston, South Carolina, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, pastor of a small African - American church, founded an orphanage for African - American children - Jenkins Orphanage.

Jenkins Orphanage band, the history of The Charleston dance and step
Jenkins Orphanage Band, South Carolina, Charleston. Many scholars attribute the spread of the Charleston dance to the boys from the band.

In order to face the financial issues and needs of the kids, he set up a brass band. At that time the Jenkins Orphanage band was mainly performing Gullah, or as it was called geechee music. True to tradition the band featured young dancers, who performed “geechie” steps in front of the band, as if conducting the musicians.

Many scholars believe that the Jenkins Orphanage Band is responsible for the national spread of the Gullah inspired Charleston steps while they were travelling to raise the money.

The Gullah/Geechee people are descendants of west Africans, rice growing tribes, who were enslaved and brought to the sea islands because of their expertise in the rice growing traditions. They were brought to live in North Carolina all the way down to Florida, but primarily in  South Carolina, sea islands.

There are a few stories that tells us who was the inventor of the Charleston step.

Story I - boys from Charleston Jenkins Band

Professor Jacky Malone in Steppin on the Blues tells us about a street and cabaret dancer Russel Brown. He was best known for “Geechie dance” that was later called '' The Charleston”. She quotes the jazz pianist Willie Smith (“The Lion”), who fully attributes the spread of Charleston to the Gullah/Geechee culture and the boys from Jenkins Orphanage.

 

Willie "the Lion" Smith, jazz pianist who tells a history of Charleston dance
Willie "the Lion" Smith, jazz pianist. Harlem, NY (by Arnold Newman, 1960)

Willie Smith recollects that people in Harlem would holler when they'd see Russel Brown dance: “Hey Charleston, do your Geechie dance”.

Some folks say that is how the Charleston got its name. I am a tough man for facts and I say the Geechie dance had been in New York for many years before Brown showed up. The kids from the Jenkins Orphanage Band in Charleston used to do Geechie steps when they were in New York on their yearly tour

- Willie Smith  (Steppin' on the Blues, p.85)

It is interesting to mention that Gullah is the most authentic African culture in America. In the Gullah culture, music was not separated from the dance it accompanied. The unique rhythms and accompanying dance rituals of Gullah culture were often taken over by Charleston's early jazz and ragtime musicians.

Story II - Russel Brown, musician of Jenkins Band

We find a similar story about the orphan boy dancing Geechie steps in author’s Mark Knowles book “The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances”. The only difference is that Russel Brown is mentioned as a musician, and a member of Jenkins Orphanage Band.

Story III -  Dan White & southern dancers at The Jungles Casino

Mark Knowles as well quotes John P. Johnson, the composer of “The Charleston” tune. Johnson says that he saw the Gullah dances in The Jungles Casino in 1913 where he was playing. Majority of dancers were from South Carolina, Charleston. The best of all on the dance floor, was Dan White, recollects Johnson. He was the one to introduce The Charleston step as we know it.  Johnson says that he composed his famous Charleston tunes while watching Southern dancers jamming.

Story IV - Russel Brooks from Charleston

There is an audio documentation of how Willie "The Lion" Smith tells a story about Charleston. One day himself, Jamie Johnson (presumably John P. Johnson) and Fats saw a little guy, they called him Russel Brooks. Brooks was a dancer from Charleston. He used to dance on the streets and cafes for quarters. "Jamie said, I think I'll write a dance for him, Lion, and we will call it The Charleston". He mentions that the "geechies" they come from North Carolina and "they can dance". Following the story Willie "The Lion" plays "the Charleston" tune.

This piece is from his 1958 "The Legend of Willie The Lion Smith" LP, produced by Grand Award Record Group.

 

Story V - The Charleston, Herman Brown’s dance

Also we find an interesting, slightly different angle on the story about the spread of Charleston in Alphonso Brown’s book “ A Gullah Guide to Charleston”. He writes about Herman Brown, a boy who brought the dance from Charleston to Harlem. “The dance is known now as The Charleston, Herman Brown’s dance”.

Brown writes how once touring in New York John P. Johnson taught the boys from Jenkins Band his tune “The Charleston”  from popular Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild” and the moves that went along with it. Upon returning from New York The Jenkins Band would play the new ragtime music and do the steps. White ladies would come along and imitate the moves.

 

the history of charleston step, how white ladies imitaded the charleston from the boys in Jenkins Band
A group of flappers imitating the Charleston alongside the Jenkins Band on Franklin Street ca 1920's

We can only collect as many stories and memories as we can to build a more complete picture of how the history of the Charleston dance. What we know now is that the Charleston dance swept the world up in a frenzy of wild dancing.

Here is a excerpt from the Jenkins Orphanage Band performing. You can see the boy doing the early Charleston, "geechie" dance. You can watch the full video here.

1920s - The Charleston on stage and film

In the early 20s the Charleston dance turned into a popular American craze, a distinctive, maybe stereotyped, feature of the Jazz Age, the flappers and the era of Prohibitionism. As we discovered above, the dance would have been performed in many nightclubs and streets of New York. Still it was said to have been “officially” presented in the all-Black Broadway show Runnin’ Wild (1923). The show was one of the earlier Arfican - American Broadway successes. There it was danced to the hit song “The Charleston” by the Black American composer James P. Johnson.

In 1925 an African American performer Josephine Baker introduced the Charleston dance in Europe during her Parisian tour “Le revue negre”. Short after the Charleston dance soon became international craze.

Later in 1928 Joan Crawford paid a tribute to the Charleston in a film “Our Dancing daughters”. The Charleston was the all favourite dance to watch and to do.

Conclusion

It is hard to find a full objective story of the Charleston dance. The history of it may be far richer than we know. We can only trace it back as much as we have sources to look into.

Which leads to me this amazing quote by Cholly Atkins. He is talking about the origins of the Charleston dance in his book “Class Act”:

(..) Charleston step (...) We think it came up from South Carolina with its name intact and was introduced in a Broadway show, Running’ Wild. That’s what I was always told. But see, this thing is really complex because of all the interweaving and overlapping that happened. There was so much cross fertilisation from one venue to another – from the street , to the theatre, to the dance hall, to the nightclub. /…/ All of those dances came right out of the authentic jazz and were choreographed for stage

The Charleston dance as many other authentic and vernacular jazz dances is rooted in African tradition. It evolved through time, changed depending on who performed it and where, and by how it was presented on stage and film.

Yet due to little or no documentation of black Charleston dancers, the commonly known image connected to the Charleston dance is a white flapper girl. Though it does not present a full picture. Either through destruction, non documentation or deliberate white washing these recordings are sadly not with us. Hence we must fill in the gaps.

For my part, this dance is at the heart of everything we do in Lindy Hop, and solo jazz dance. It goes without saying that it is beautiful to dig deeper and fully understand it. I have tried my best to honour this dance, and teach as much as I have learned about it in my courses “Secrets of Charleston 20s”. This course aims to present you with the main steps, variations, and movements of this incredible dance form. You can check the subscription plan here.

Resources

Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning, Cynthia R. Millman

The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances by Mark Knowles

Black Dance in the United States from 1916 to 1970 by Emery, Lynne Fauley

A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History by Alphonso Brown

The Cradle of JAZZ. Reverend Daniel Jenkins and his orphanage band 
Jenkins Orphanage Band gave African American boys another chance at life 
"Jenkins Orphanage " by Julie Hubbert
The Gullah Gechee people 
The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection

 

Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya

If you are a beginner, to improve your turns in solo jazz, first you need to focus on the basic techniques of turns. Preparation and spotting are the 2 most important elements of turning. In this blog you will discover the essential tips for improving your turns.

If it doesn’t look easy it is that we have not tried hard enough yet
Fred Astaire

Preparation in solo jazz dance turns

Preparation is the key to stability and direction, hence balance and coordination in solo jazz dance turns. In preparation you decided on which leg you turn and which direction is your turn (front left/right or back left/right). It’s important to know where your weight is at every and any stage. The worst case scenario is when you have weight in between your legs and you have no clue where you go.

How to prepare for a turn?

Preparation depends on the type of turn and the step you are coming from into the turn. There are simple rotations, spins and rhythm turns. Start working on your turns in solo jazz dance with simple rotation. Simple rotation is essentially just going somewhere via a rotation.

  1. Spin is a fast turn.
  2. Rhythm Turn is something related to jazz dance and tap specifically. It is when you create a rhythm in your feet when rotating.
  3. The turns can be on one leg and on both legs.

Preparation as well depends on the direction of your turn, amplitude and speed.
Normally, all the standard turns are done with the weight on / over the balls of your feet. For variation and eccentric style we can turn on the heel, toe, or other parts of the leg and even body. As for the basic turn technique, start with focusing on weight distribution on the balls of your feet.

Why do we fall when turning and how to keep control?

We fall from the turn often because of 2 issues that are somewhat related:

  1. the weight is to much on the heel, hence your shoulder fall back and you fall back
  2. the shoulders tend to move back hence you go on your heels and you fall back

Make sure to keep your weight over the balls of your feet and turn on the ball of your feet.

Where do I start the turn from?

The wheel of the typical standard turn are your shoulders. Not your nose, not you legs or arms, but your shoulders. When we go into the turn we do not sporadically throw ourself to one side. We push from the floor with our feet and create direction with our shoulder. Try moving your right shoulder slightly to the right and see how your whole body want to turn.
There are 2 categories of turns: with disassociation of the body parts, a sort of delay or echo effect, and when we turn as a block.

  1. one is when you start the turn in one point of the body and then the whole body comes later into the rotation
  2. the other is when the whole body goes into the rotation at the same time, so the shoulder - hip -knee - toes look the same direction and rotate at the same time.

Start to practice the second type of the turn for solo jazz dance. This way you will learn the basic technique from where you then can start practicing other more advanced turns. In the beginning all we want to achieve is to get controlled and smooth turns.

ksenia parkhatskaya toe turn rock that swing festival solo jazz dance show
Ksenia Parkhatskaya doing a toe turn in her Revival choreography to Christian McBride at Rock That Swing Festival. Photo by Tamara Pinco

 

Spotting when doing a turn

Spotting is another key to success for good turns in solo jazz dance. You will hear the word "spot" in a dance class on turns nearly hundred times.

Remember the two simple rules:

  1. My eyes and nose leave into the turn the last, but return from the turn first. The key idea is to keep an eye on something to know where are you going into the turn from and where are you arriving after the turn. The the eyes need to focus right after the rotation, before you put the leg on the ground to finish the turn.
  2. My neck and head leave a separate life from the body. You do not turn your head together with the body. The neck and head stays spotting and only then goes into turn.

Why do I feel dizzy when turning and how to prevent it?

Spotting will help you to stop feeling dizzy. Dizziness comes because you are not spotting, which is to say that your eyes are not focused and your vision field is blurry. If you go into the rotation and not spot (which is to say your head will turn at the same time as the body), you will feel dizzy pretty quickly.

Landing from a turn

In vernacular solo jazz dance styles it is acceptable to land with a slight soft bounce down. Make sure you do not collapse into it though, but still have control over weight distribution. In jazz dance styles like solo jazz dance, the lindy (hop), swing, 20s Charleston and so on, you do not need to push up when turning, you can keep low and parallel to the ground with bend knees.
One of the biggest inspirations in jazz dancing regarding turns is Nicholas Brothers. Their furious, energetic style of rhythm turns and spins is very inspiring for dancers of all styles.

Conclusion

Practice few minutes at a time and take breaks. Feeling dizzy will definitely not help. Spend time in preparation to make sure you spot and have weight distribution according to how you want to turn and you know your direction.

You can check out this video, it’s a partial recording of my class on turn technique in jazz dance:

You can study turn techniques with Secrets of Solo online dance classes. It is a very convenient way to improve the turns in solo jazz dance. You can study in your own pace in front of the mirror, filming yourself. Most importantly you do not need to be worried or feel embarrassed in a class with other people. You can take the online class as a first step to establish your basics and then feel more comfortable and confident in a live class.Solo Jazz 101 course

(perfect for any level)
Jazz Steps IV: Signature Breaks chapter

  1. Lesson 28: Lock Turns 9
  2. Tips: How not to get dizzy in a turn 2
  3. Lesson 31: Half Break & Lock Turn 1
  4. Lesson 32: Lock Turn Break

Variation Lab. vol II: Fall Off The Log course

  1. Variation 12: Syncopated Turn 2
  2. Variation 13: Kick Turn
  3. Variation 14: Back Turn 1

Secrets of Improvisation course
(perfect for any level, especially if you are working on improvising)

  1. “How to step?” Rotation 2
  2. Chapter IV: Form & Rotation 1 (check all classes in this chapter)
  3. Fall of The Log. “Rotation” tool 2

This article is a developed answer to a request on Ksenia's Quora acccount,

“Flippant flapper, trim and dapper, naughty, haughty, chic man-trapper. All together now, boys, ‘Has she got IT? Well, I guess. Clara! Clara! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ ”  - The Akron Beacon Journal from Akron, Ohio

Flappers made huge leaps forward in economic, sexual and political freedoms for women. Colleen Moore, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks were the 3 most famous flappers in Hollywood in 1920's. They inspired the change for generations of young women to come, of how women were perceived and how they could act.

Thinking about women in America in the early 20s, we tend to immediately identify them with the iconic character of the flapper. Flapper brings up the image of slender women in short, straight dresses, long beaded necklaces, and bobbed hair, drinking gin and dancing the Charleston 20s. As Joshua Zeitz says, the flapper was most certainly a type, a “caricature”, one part fiction and one part reality, with a splash of melodrama for good measure.

The flapper is the symbol of the “modern” woman, who breaks out of the rigorous criteria of the Victorian Pre-War female model. She is claiming economic, political and sexual freedom enjoying the pleasures of life, dancing in the night club and listening to Jazz music. Flappers became the main cultural and historical trend of the Jazz Age. They were widely discussed in newspapers and magazines, sometimes critically and sometimes glowingly. There were flapper cartoon characters, flapper-themed songs, and plenty of cheeky slang was entering the public lexicon. And, of course, the new youth culture was a hot trend in Hollywood-land films.

The 3 famous flappers on silver screen

Flapper culture was arguably big business for Hollywood right up to the end of the Jazz Age. Hollywood in turn certainly had a major influence on flapper fashion and popular pastimes. You can’t help wondering whether films were imitating real-life flappers, or whether flappers were modelling themselves after what they saw on screen. The “flapper film” genre developed from 1920. With the film “The Flapper” starring Olive Thomas ( until 1929 when Clara Bow played her last flapper role in the Dorothy Arzner film The Wild Party (Ross 2000), testifies the pervasiveness of this figure in the imagination of the time.

“The flapper has charm, good looks, good clothes, intellect and a healthy point of view”- Colleen Moore.

 

Colleen Moore, "The Perfect Flapper"

Colleen Moore, one of the 3 most famous flappers, helped popularize the flappers bobbed haircut.
Colleen Moore, the star of the silent screen who personified the jazz-age flapper flapper. She became one of the most fashionable (and highly-paid) stars of the era and helped popularize the flappers bobbed haircut.

 

Colleen Moore, born Kathleen Morrison in 1899, was the first sensational famous flapper on screen. She took her first step in Hollywood at age 15, and began her career during the silent film era. The turning point in her career came with a story called Flaming Youth (1923), which had been a scandalous, best-selling novel about “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure mad daughters, and sensation craving mothers.” Colleen wanted the role of wild daughter Patricia Frentiss badly, so with the help of her mother she overhauled her screen image. Gone were the long curls, her mother cut her hair into a Dutch bob.

 

Colleen Moore expressive faces in 1920's silent movies
The quintessential flapper girl Colleen Moore. Austrian postcard by Iris-Verlag. Publicity still for The Desert Flower (Irving Cummings, 1925)

 

Colleen Moore famous flapper outfit in 1920's
“The chief difference is that the flapper has more ambition, and there are now more things for her to wish for, and a greater chance of getting them too!” - Colleen (from a 1922 Chicago Daily News article by Glady Hall)

 

Colleen got the role in "Flaming Youth", and with it, she created a new screen type– the emancipated young girl who defies convention. She defined the Roaring Twenties with her bobbed hair, short skirts and rebellious nature. As F. Scott Fitzgerald later wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

 

 

Clara Bow, "the ultimate flapper"

Clara Bow, one of the 3 most famous flappers, represents perfect flapper face and figure. Big - eyed, baby - faced flapper image.
The "It" Girl, flapper Clara Bow. The 1920s actress became a new kind of down-to-earth Hollywood idol. Her film It established a female archetype that’s still with us.

Second of the 3 most famous flappers is Clara Bow. Miss Bow has never left the American and Western cultural imagination: she is perhaps the diva who more than any other has decreed the eternal charm of the flapper. There is something vital that conquers in her presence. It is the spirit of youth. She is a rampant Young American, the very symbol of being a flapper “(Clara Bow, Running Wild, Stenn 1988: 48).

Bow’s appeal had many facets. The writer Elinor Glyn describes ‘It’ as warmth, charisma, vivacity and apparently effortless charm. And in that sense, Bow was undoubtedly an It Girl and appealed to both men and women. There hasn’t been another one like her. Not only did she have the perfect flapper face and figure, she also radiated fun and excitement and spontaneity. On-camera, she was irresistible. America fell in love with on screen image of Bow because of her big-eyed, baby-faced beauty, but also because she was carefree, energetic, self-assured and breezily independent. Off-camera, she was 100 percent real at all times. (Deborah Kennedy about Clara Bow).

Clara Bow, perfect flapper in a vintage dress, Hollywood 1920's
Clara Bow, famous actress, "known as the screen's perfect flapper", who rose to stardom in silent film during the 1920s and successfully made the transition to "talkies" in 1929.

Having “it” means having a natural sex appeal, a vital magnetic force that attracts people. With “it” you conquer all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man and Bow had it!
The turning point of her career was in 1927, when she starred in the silent movie “It”, playing the part of Betty Lou Spence. “It” turned Clara Bow from an up-and-coming movie actress into the biggest movie star of the 1920s who in the process became a film legend as a result of “It”.

 

Louise Brooks, "sex symbol flapper"

Louise Brooks, flapper with famous bobbed brunette hair style
This particular photograph of flapper Louise is one of 16 different poses in the famous "speckled dress" that were taken by George P. Hommel about 1927.

She had that crisp pageboy bob, she had those strong, straight eyebrows, unlike the coy arches of her contemporaries. She was so slender and fit she seemed poised for flight. The most extraordinary things happened to her in her best films, and instead of visibly reacting and telegraphing emotions, she acted as the instrument to transmit them to us. (Review: "She doesn't act. She does nothing. Rogert Ebert)

The 3rd famous flapper figure on our list is Mary Louise Brooks. Louise Brooks was an American Jazz Age icon, Hollywood actress and dancer. Her innocent eroticism, along with her pale beautiful features and bobbed brunette hair, her rebellious temperament, her witty jokes and bold sincerity made her both a film icon and a symbol of the disdainful flapper of the 1920s.

She started her career as a dancer, she was the youngest member of the Denishawn Dancers. Joining the troupe and traveling to New York City to pursue a career in dance at just 15 years old. After an argument, she left the company and found employment as a chorus girl in George White’s Scandals and as a semi-nude charleston and burlesque dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies in New York City. While performing she came to the attention of Walter Wanger, a producer at Paramount Pictures, and was signed to a five-year contract with the studio.

Luoise Brooks one of the 3 most famous flappers in burlesque dress dancing for ziegfield follies
Flapper Icon and female Sex Symbol Louise Brooks started her career as a charleston and burlesque dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway.

After starring in a few Hollywood productions she moved to Berlin, where Georg Wilhelm Pabst hired her for the role of Lulu in "Pandora’s box". Lulu embodies the myth of the fatal woman: sensual, provocative, fearsome in her amorality but at the same time, like the spirit of the earth, an instinctive and immediate purity, natural in her quintessence. An authentic flapper in its essence!

Check this Documentary about Louise Brooks (minute 18.02 you can see some Charleston 20s dance):

https://youtu.be/PLjovB5b374

 

How did 3 symbolic flappers change the image of a woman?

Colleen Moore, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks were 3 of the most famous flappers, powerful female sex symbols, in Hollywood. They are the flapper women who inspired generations of young women, who started imitating their looks, their sexual appeals and independence, their self reliant behaviour and aptitude. These flappers were greatly idolised by young females who began to believe there was more to life than being a housewife or stay at home mom.

Young females showed society that they were capable of becoming independently strong and making decisions on their own. Adolescent females knew that when they changed their lifestyle, they would be portrayed and perceived differently. They knew changing their lifestyle and ideology was the only way to gain equality even if society did not readily accept the change. It is worthy to note society did not seem too fond that flappers depicted the lives of young females who were independent, rebellious, and unfazed about how they were perceived.

The flapper, despite her notorious frivolity, was also a version of the “new woman,” who fought for independence, equality in marriage and pay and a political voice.

How these 3 famous flappers decided to approach life and change their own image became the starting point of a revolution, a milestone of what will be later called ”feminism”. Flappers receded from American life after the Great Depression pulled the plug on all the revelry. With the rise of feminism in the 1960s they enjoyed a bit of a revival, but were remembered largely for their racy fashions and short skirts that were a symbol of sexual liberation.

Feminists had an understandable, get-down-to-business side that was fiercely at odds with the flappers’ devotion to a prolonged adolescence. A flapper cheerfully called herself a “girl,” whereas feminists disdained the word as an insult. Linda Simon, author of “Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper”, claims that women of the Roaring Twenties had a lot in common with today’s millennials. Many young feminists embrace the flapper’s sassy, independent spirit of seeming to play at adulthood, and are perfectly comfortable referring to themselves as “girls”.

“Flapper styles may be relegated to costume museums, but the flapper spirit lives again after a hundred years” (from "Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper")

 

References:

Clara Bow: Runnin Wild by David Stenn, 1988
Lulu in Hollywood Brooks, L., 1974,New York, Alfred Knopf.
Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper by Linda Simon
Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
Flappers and Philosophers by Scott Fitzgerald

 

About flappers and Hollywood:

 

Flappers. Women's independence. 
Silents Are Golden: Flapper Culture in the Films of the Roaring Twenties
Fabulous Flappers of the silver screen. 
Dive at work: working girls and strong women in American silent cinema. The case of Clara Bow, the "It Girl"
A portrait of: Louise Brooks
Colleen Moore: The Girl Who Personified the ''Flapper'' of the 1920s
Clara Bow. The original "IT" girl

 

History of dances in 1920's:

History of major classic jazz dance steps

Secrets of Charleston 20's 

 

Written by Martina Maddalena

Co-writer and editor: Ksenia Parkhatskaya

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