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Dance like it’s 1923

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Photo by Nina Leen via

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History of The Charleston

From kids driving their parents + teachers crazy with the Floss Dance to internet users taking on the Shiggy Challenge, 2018 just might be the year of dance challenges.

But while the current dance crazes may come and go, a ground-breaking dance from the 1920’s is still well-known today – and it all started right here in Charleston.

“The Charleston” became a pop culture phenomenon in 1923 thanks to the song The Charlestonwhich was composed by James P. Johnson – from the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild.

The dance was most popular throughout the 1920’s amongst “scandalous” men + women who shed the stuffy etiquette of their parents’ generation + wanted to flap their arms, kick up their heels, + let loose – hence the term ‘flappers.”

But long before the show-dance ever made its Broadway debut, the origins of the dance can be traced back to the coast of Charleston + the community of people who live there. Back when the morals were looser + the liquor was cheaper

The Charleston is said to be based on the “Juba,” a dance brought to Charleston by enslaved African Americans + performed by dock workers in the early 1900’s. The Juba involves rhythmic stomping, kicking, + slapping, and it became a challenge dance of the American American community at the time.

At the turn of the twentieth century, The Charleston was well-known amongst African American communities. During World War I, many Southern African Americans headed north, bringing the dance with them.

Then, in 1911, the Charleston was used by the Whitman Sisters in their famous stage act and was part of Harlem stage productions in 1913.

In 1922, the Charleston officially hit Broadway in the all-black stage play, Liza. While the dance became popular amongst black musicians, it did not become a part of mainstream culture until October 29, 1923, with the Flournoy Miller / Aubrey Lyles Broadway show Runnin’ Wild.

At the end of World War I, The Charleston became a staple of the Roaring 20s (a.k.a. The Jazz Age) as many white Americans felt liberated after the war. During the era, women cut their hair into short bobs, shook off their corsets, snuck booze during Prohibition, + danced the Charleston in speakeasies under the glow of new electric light bulbs.

Famous American/French dancer Josephine Baker (the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer) danced the Charleston in the ‘20s, adding moves to make it silly – like crossing her eyes. When she traveled to Paris as part of the La Revue Negre in 1925, she helped make the Charleston famous in Europe, as well.

While the dance was choreographed from the original Juba dance to be “more appealing” to the masses, the specific steps were adapted throughout the era. Adaptations of The Charleston helped create swing dances + other popular challenges like the “Mashed Potato.”

The Charleston song was James P. Johnson’s biggest hit – and 95 years later, the song still instills images of flappers dancing to the tune upon hearing the notes (at least in our minds).

So, now that you know the history of The Charleston, how do you dance it? The Charleston can be danced alone or with a partner. The basic step is done in eight-count movements.

👯Begin in a straightforward, standing position with your palms parallel to the floor.

👯Step forward with your left foot. Move your right foot forward, + tap it in front of your left.

👯 Step backward with your right foot. Then step backward with your left foot, and tap it behind your right.

👯Swing your arms side to side or back and forth to the beat that you’re moving your feet.

👯To jazz it up, add a twist in the hips by balancing on the balls of your feet and moving your heels in and out as you step forward and backward.

Watch a YouTube tutorial here.

I officially invite you to start the Josephine Baker Challenge. Post a video of yourself doing The Charleston like Josephine Baker + post it with the hashtag #CHStoday.

Good luck, old sport.

- Justine