What’s the name of the popular dance from the 1920s, also known as, “The Flapper Dance”?

And the answer: the Charleston.    
Photo credit: public domain. 

The Charleston became the dance craze of the 20s when James P. Johnson's song "The Charleston" was featured in the 1923 musical, Runnin’ Wild. Although the dance’s origins are obscure, variations of the Charleston can be traced back to Black communities off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and even further back to Trinidad, Nigeria, and Ghana.

True to its name, the Charleston first grew and flourished in communities of Charleston, South Carolina. First sighted in 1903, the roots of the dance are scattered across lines of culture and community, as it evolved in the Black diaspora of the American south. Of the many stories which circulate around the beginnings of this historical dance, most agree that its origins lay in the Gullah/Geechee people of South Carolina. Descendants from west Africans, many Gullah originally made their way to the United States as enslaved peoples, before then remaining in the American south. Before the dance was ever known as the Charleston, these communities celebrated the tradition of dance known as Juba. The rhythmic moves and free steps were celebrated across communities of enslaved peoples before and after Black liberation.

As one narrative describes, the idea for the dance came in 1891 when Reverend Daniel Jenkins founded an orphanage for African American children. To interest the kids in music, Reverend Jenkins created a brass band that would be accompanied by dancers. At the time, these young dancers performed “geechie” steps in front of the band, as if conducting the musicians. The band's money-raising travel around the southern U.S. is often cited as the first real spread of what would come to be known as the Charleston.

By the early twentieth century, the Charleston was well-known among African American communities. During and after World War I, many southern African Americans headed north, bringing the dance with them. Then, in 1911, the Charleston hit the main stage when the Whitman Sisters used the dance in their famous act. In 1922, the Charleston officially came to Broadway in the all-black stage play, Liza. While the dance became popular among black musicians, it did not become a part of mainstream culture until October 29, 1923, with the Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles Broadway show Runnin’ Wild.

Learn more about the history and significance of the Charleston here.


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