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Associated with the rebellious, short-skirted, bobbed-haired flappers of the 1920s, the Charleston was the iconic dance of the Roaring Twenties. Taking its name from the South Carolina city, this upbeat dance likely originated among the African American community living on an island near Charleston. Though it had been previously featured in productions such as Ziegfeld Follies and Liza, the Charleston was made popular by the Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild in 1923. While the exact origins of the dance are not known, the Charleston combines elements of Western and African culture in America like the jazz music that served as its inspiration.
Other dances overshadowed the Charleston in popularity after its heyday in the 1920s, but the Charleston strongly influenced Lindy Hop and Swing, and continued to draw enthusiastic dancers (see this video of Charleston by Al Minns and Leon James, who were both dancers in Harlem in the 1930s). The Swing Revival of the 1980s and 1990s breathed new life into the Charleston along with Lindy Hop and East Coast Swing, and it remains a popular with dancers today (see the 2013 finalists for solo Charleston at the International Lindy Hop Championships here).
Charleston may best be described as controlled chaos. The combination of kicking legs and swinging arms hearkens back to the rebellious enthusiasm of its 1920s devotees. This exuberant dance is often performed at very high speeds and has amazing versatility. Charleston can be danced solo, with a partner, or in a group, and partner Charleston can be danced face-to-face, side-by-side, or tandem.
As with many of the swing dances originating in the 1920s, the Charleston aesthetic has evolved over time, though 1920s Charleston with its vintage feel can still be found on today’s dance floor. Today’s 1920s Charleston emphasizes upright posture with little head and upper body movement contrasting with the twisting feet and, in some cases, flapping arms. Partner 1920s Charleston is often danced in closed position with a ballroom rather than a swing hold.
During the 1930s, the dance’s aesthetic became even more grounded with less emphasis on the contrast between flying feet and upright posture. Instead, the posture in this style of Charleston has a slight gravitation toward the floor. Rather than a twisting, flapping motion, modern Charleston emphasizes even more the looseness of the original form.
Charleston is often danced to swing, ragtime, and hot jazz music, frequently in combination with Lindy Hop and East Coast Swing. Charleston is rooted in connection to the music and echoes the playfulness and improvisation of fast-paced jazz. Charleston step patterns are eight count, and this dance is typically set to the syncopated 4/4 rhythm popular in ragtime jazz. Although Charleston can be danced at a wide range of speeds, its suitability for fast songs, between 200 and 300 bpm is one of its striking features.