I remember legendary dancer Frankie Manning once asking a joking question to an auditorium full of students at the annual Lindy Hop workshop he used to teach in the SF Bay Area: “Is there anyone here who knows all the Charleston steps? Please raise your hand.” Those who’d heard the joke before giggled as one or two relatively new dancers nervously raised their hands. “Because if there is anyone here who knows all the Charleston steps, I’d really like them to teach them to me.”
The joke of course is that there are so many variations of the basic dance step known as the Charleston, that no one person could possibly know all of them. Still, here’s a little history about the dance craze that transfixed the world in the 1920s and helped plant the seeds for what would eventually be the Lindy Hop.
The Charleston dance is named after the harbor city of Charleston, South Car0lina, and probably had its roots in the “star” or challenge dances that were a part of the African-American dance Juba. By the time the dance had reached Harlem, New York City, its movements had evolved from a lazy twisting of the feet to be a fast kicking step, kicking the feet both forward and back. The dance first appeared with modifications to make it more showy for the stage in Irving Berlin’s 1923 Liza, however, its inclusion in the late 1923 Broadway show Runnin’ Wild along with the show’s use of the catchy new James P. Johnson tune “the Charleston” that gave the step legs to stand on as well as a signature rhythm.
1920s Flapper / Solo Charleston
One popular version of the Charleston was that danced without a partner by the 1920s Prohibition era white flappers. Characterized by lanky arms and legs that would swing wildy from the shoulders and hips, this sort of Charleston exuded a zany, carefree, and rebellious spirit that could be interpreted as a visual and kinetic mockery of the “drys” or citizens who supported Prohibition. Th
1920s Partner Charleston
Another form of the Charleston popular in the 1920s was that danced with a partner in a traditional European partner dancing position, with partners facing each other but slightly offset. This dance is sometimes referred to as Face-to-Face Charleston for obvious reasons. One can see some of the roots of partner Charleston in early 20th century dances such as the One Step and Turkey Trot. However, while those ragtime era dances typically traveled in the line of the dance, partner Charleston dancer tended to occupy a relatively fixed spot on the dance floor. In New York City, there were both Uptown and Downtown styles of Charleston, corresponding to the respectively African-American and Caucasian ballrooms in which they originated.
1930s – 40s Lindy Charleston
With the advent of Big Band music in the late 1920s and early 30s came corresponding developments in dancing. The 1929 film After Seben features Shorty George Snowden and his dancers demonstrating new footwork improvisations on the Charleston (i.e. heel pops, sweeping feet, drops, running steps, etc.) as well as more varied partner work including a rotated basic step and partner release movements that are considered the foundations of early Lindy Hop.
By the 1930s, when Lindy Hop was in full swing, dancers still incorporated plenty of Charleston steps in their repertoire, altering the styling and feel of the steps. Most notably, the Charleston evolved from an upright and lanky step to be lower, grounded and more earthy. Also, whereas 1920s Charleston dancers would swing their limbs from the shoulders and hips, 1930s & 40s Charleston dancers would hinge their kicks at the knees and elbows, giving the dance a more angular look and adding a syncopated complexity to the basic Charleston rhythm.
Where as a 1920s Charleston footwork could be described as “touch (1) step (3) touch (5) step (7)”, the Lindy version of a basic Charleston would be more complex: “rock(1) step(2) kick(3) step(4), kick forward (5) bend knee (6) kick back (7) step(8).”
This newer style of hinged Charleston kicks, also led to a variety of new partner Charleston variations, including what modern swing dancers refer to as side-by-side Charleston, kick-through Charleston, airplane/swoop Charleston, tandem Charleston…and countless others.