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Charleston Characteristics

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 is a dance named for the harbor city of Charleston, South Carolina. The rhythm was popularized in mainstream dance music in the United States by a 1923 tune called "The Charleston" by composer/pianist James P. Johnson which originated in the Broadway show Runnin' Wild and became one of the most popular hits of the decade. Runnin' Wild ran from 29 October 1923, through 28 June 1924. The peak year for the Charleston as a dance by the public was mid-1926 to 1927.

While the dance probably came from the "star" or challenge dances that were all part of the African-American dance called Juba, the particular sequence of steps which appeared in Runnin' Wild were probably newly devised for popular appeal. "At first, the step started off with a simple twisting of the feet, to rhythm in a lazy sort of way. [This could well be the Jay-Bird.] When the dance hit Harlem, a new version was added. It became a fast kicking step, kicking the feet, both forward and backward and later done with a tap." Further changes were undoubtedly made before the dance was put on stage. In the words of Harold Courlander, while the Charleston had some characteristics of traditional Negro dance, it "was a synthetic creation, a newly-devised conglomerate tailored for wide spread popular appeal." Although the step known as "Jay-Bird", and other specific movement sequences are of Afro-American origin, no record of the Charleston being performed on the plantation has been discovered.

Although it achieved popularity when the song "Charleston", sung by Elisabeth Welch, was added in the production Runnin' Wild, the dance itself was first introduced in Irving C. Miller's Liza in the spring of 1923.

Charleston is usually danced to music at comparatively high tempos (usually above 200 or 250 beats per minute, with tempos above 300 BPM considered 'fast'), and is characterized by high-energy dancing. Faster movements are often contrasted with slower, dragging steps and improvisations.

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.

Solo

Charleston can be danced solo, or with a partner. Its simple, flexible basic step makes it easy to concentrate on styling, improvisation and musicality.

Whichever style of Charleston one chooses, whether dancing alone, with a partner, or in groups, the basic step resembles the natural movement of walking, though it is usually performed in place. The arms swing forward and backwards, with the right arm coming forward as the left leg 'steps' forward, and then moving back as the opposite arm/leg begin their forwards movement. Toes are not pointed, but feet usually form a right angle with the leg at the ankle. Arms are usually extended from the shoulder, either with straight lines, or more frequently with bent elbows and hands at right angles from the wrist (characteristics of many African dances). Styling varies with each Charleston type from this point.

Partner Charleston

Charleston couples stand facing each other in a traditional European partner dancing pose, often referred to as closed position which aids leading and following. The leader's right hand is placed on the follower's back between their shoulder blades. The follower's left hand rests on the leader's shoulder or biceps. The leader's left hand and the follower's right hand are clasped palm to palm, held either at shoulder height or higher. Partners may maintain space between their bodies or dance with their torsos touching.

The basic step is for the leader to touch their left foot behind them, but not to shift their weight, on counts 1 and 2, while the follower mirrors the motion by touching their right foot in front of them without shifting weight. On counts 3 and 4, both partners bring their feet back to a standing position, but shift their weight onto the foot they have just moved. On counts 5 and 6, the leader touches their right foot in front of themselves while the follower touches their left foot back. On 7 and 8, both feet are brought back to the standing position where the necessary weight shift occurs to allow the basic step to repeat.

Partner Charleston involves a number of positions, including "jockey position", where closed position is opened out so that both partners may face forward, without breaking apart.

In "side-by-side" Charleston partners open out the closed position entirely, so that their only points of connection are at their touching hips, and where the lead's right hand and arm touch the follower's back, and the follower's left hand and arm touch the leader's shoulder and arm. Both partners then swing their free arms as they would in solo Charleston. In both jockey and side-by-side Charleston the leader steps back onto their left foot, while the follower steps back onto their right. In "tandem Charleston" one partner stands in front of the other (usually the follower, though the arrangement may vary), and both step back onto their left feet to begin. The partner behind holds the front partner's hands at their hip height, and their joined arms swing backwards and forwards as in the basic step.

There are numerous other variations on these holds, including "hand-to-hand" Charleston, and countless variations on the footwork (including Johnny's Drop, freezes, Savoy kicksand so on