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The Charleston - Signature Dance of the Roaring Twenties

Updated on July 1, 2010

Charleston (1923)

The Charleston Dance in the 1920s

In 1923 when the Broadway show Runnin' Wild featured a tune called The Charleston and the phenomenon was born which is both a style of music and a type of dance.  Before the 1920s, dances rarely involved movement of the arms and upper body.  The Charleston changed all of that - and was regarded as decadent by some.  The arm movements look like a bird flapping it's wings so the women who dance the Charleston became known as "flappers", a term which is now associated with the 1920s style of women's fashion.

The Music of the 1920s

The Charleston was just one of many types of dance music popular during the 1920s.  Other dances included the Shimmy, the Cake Walk, the Foxtrot and the Tango.  In America, New Orleans had a huge influence with jazz and ragtime immensely popular.  The Charleston was essentially a continuation of this musical tradition.  Duke Ellington was one of the most popular jazz band leaders with famous songs like It Don't Mean a Thing. Bessie Smith, "The Empress of the Blues", is also featured in the video alongside and was famous for singing blues.

Other stars were known for more classical work.  A good example of George Gershwin who wrote the folk opera Porgy and Bess but he also wrote for Hollywood and played vaudeville.

Charleston in the Movies

Many early movie stars like Greta Garbo were accomplished Charleston dancers, to the benefit of their early careers.  The Charleston was also of course a great subject for movies, particularly since the movie dance partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were so famous.  The video is a deleted scene from the 1942 movie, Roxie Hart showing Ginger Rogers dancing a vibrant Charleston.

Modern Charleston Dance

A good example of how the Charleston has developed is shown in this video of Chris Hollins' Charleston on the BBC television show Strictly Come Dancing.  There are more lifts but the beat has slowed somewhat compared to the very fast, frenetic, pace of the 1920s Charleston.

The modern Charleston can also be danced as a solo dance.


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      Kate Swanson 7 years ago from Sydney

      Love it! I hadn't seen that clip of Ginger Rogers doing the Charleston, I've just gone to Youtube and added it to my favourites.