What Is the Charleston?

A Popular Dance of the 1920s

Dancing Charleston
Bee Jackson, world Charleston dance champion perfoming in front of a mirror. Jackson was the first dancer to popularize the Charleston with white Americans. General Photographic Agency / Stringer/ Hulton Archives/ Getty Images

The Charleston was a very popular dance of the 1920s, danced by both young women (Flappers) and young men of that "roaring 20s" generation. The Charleston involves the fast-paced swinging of the legs as well as big arm movements. 

The Charleston became popular as a dance after appearing along with the song "The Charleston," by James P. Johnson, in the Broadway musical "Runnin' Wild" in 1923.

Who Danced the Charleston?

In the 1920s, young men and women shed the stodgy etiquette and moral codes of their parents' generation and let loose in their attire, actions, and attitudes. Young women cut their hair, shortened their skirts, drank alcohol, smoked, wore makeup, and "parked." Dancing also became more uninhibited.

Rather than dancing the popular dances of the late 19th century and early 20th century, such as the polka, two-step, or waltz, the freer generation of the Roaring '20s created a new dance craze—the Charleston.

Where Did the Charleston Originate?

Experts in the history of dance believe that some of the Charleston's movements probably came from Trinidad, Nigeria, and Ghana. Its first appearance in the United States was around 1903 in black communities in the South. It was then used in the Whitman Sisters stage act in 1911, and in Harlem productions by 1913. It did not become internationally popular until the musical "Runnin' Wild" debuted in 1923.

Although the origins of the dance's name are obscure, it has been traced back to blacks who lived on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The original version of the dance was much wilder and less stylized than the ballroom version.

How Do You Dance the Charleston?

The Charleston can be danced by oneself, with a partner, or in a group. The music for the Charleston is ragtime jazz, in quick 4/4 time with syncopated rhythms.

The dance uses swaying arms as well as the fast movement of the feet. The dance has basic footwork and then a number of additional variations that can be added.

To begin the dance, one first steps back with the right foot and then kicks backward with the left foot while the right arm moves forward. Then the left foot steps forward, followed by the right foot, which kicks forward while the right arm moves backward. This is done with a little hop in between steps and the foot swiveling.

After that, it gets more complicated. You can add a knee-up kick into the movement, an arm can go to the floor, or even go side to side with arms on knees.

Famous dancer Josephine Baker not only danced the Charleston, she added moves to it that made it silly and funny, 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 as the United States.

The Charleston became extremely popular in the 1920s, especially with Flappers, and is still danced today as part of swing dancing.