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.
- When doing groove walk, we should remember to keep a steady and strong bounce (pulse).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Deep connection to African roots reveals elements of improvisation, spontaneity as well as grounded body position.
- There is connection with flappers and their revolutionary new image of a woman and sexually charged movements.
- Comedy connects to 20s Charleston with its silly moves and irony.
- We can see connection with silent movies through the exaggerated overly dramatic expressions.
- Finally eccentric dance is a part of this dance culture with its legomania and bizarre movements.
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:
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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