When people hear the word “Charleston,” they tend to picture a glamorous White flapper girl, in a gorgeous gold and silver dress, gloves up to her elbows, feathers in her hair, twisting her knees while puffing away on a cigarette. Well-known films, such as The Great Gatsby, Chicago, or any black & white films from the 1920s, paint the image that Charleston dancers were upper-class, White women.
However, the origins of this fascinating dance couldn’t be further from this depiction. That global craze might have been represented in the media by White women, but it certainly wasn’t their creation.
Charleston is an African American vernacular jazz dance. It was done to both Ragtime and traditional Jazz music that embodied quick, syncopated rhythms and improvised steps from several African dances. It was a multifaceted cultural phenomenon that included a dance, a type of music and a tune, the famous ‘Charleston’ by James P. Johnson. All three captured the large public’s attention in 1923 with the Broadway production of Runnin’Wild, which ran for more than seven months.
The origins of the dance is traced back to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and even further back to various African tribes. As this dance emerged amongst Black Communities in the South, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who invented the dance or how it came to be as it wasn’t documented while it was being developed. During the first decades of the 20th century, many unique dance styles would appear in different cities around the US, influenced by the local culture and fads of each location. A few would last, some would quickly be replaced, many would stay restricted to the location where they emerged, and others would spread across the Nation. Therefore, it was hard to keep track of every new dance craze that appeared.
Unfortunately, there is no easy, straightforward answer about the origins of Charleston. However, there are numerous accounts of dance styles and cultures that probably influenced this dance, as well as some dancers who were – supposedly – the first to be seen doing the Charleston step. I have gathered all of these theories to share with you multiple views about the origins of this Hot Jazz dance.
At the time, it was very common for dance styles to carry the name of the city where they first appeared, and the Charleston was no different. Once a dancer from Charleston performed this step in other cities people started referring to it as the “dance from Charleston” or “Charleston dance.” Most notably, it made its way to New York, which was the artistic and cultural center of the US. Saxophonist Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith said about a dancer named Russel Brown:
“He was given a nickname by the people of Harlem . . . they would holler at him, “Hey Charleston, do your Geechie dance!” Some folks say that is how the dance known as the Charleston got its name.” 
Who was Russel Brown and what was a Geechie dance? We will get to that shortly. For now, let’s focus on the historical context of the city of Charleston that allowed for the merger of different aspects which resulted in this global dance craze.
During the slavery period, Charleston, South Carolina had the largest slave port in colonial North America. Nearly 150,000 enslaved Africans arrived through that port. After emancipation in 1863, Black people accounted for 56% of the city’s population, which was the highest black-to-white ratio of any of the Southern cities.
“By 1720 Charleston was the undisputed cultural center of the South, and for the remainder of the 18th century, it was the major musical hub on the eastern seaboard.” 
Charleston was also the main port of arrival for many professional artists who came from Europe. With the combination of these European artists and the many cultural and artistic traditions brought from the enslaved Africans, Charleston was a place where different music and dance practices coexisted whilst slowly merging together.
These and other Southern practices later spread across the United States, specially in Northern cities such as New York, through the large population shift known as ‘The Great Migration’, when Black Americans moved from the agricultural South to the industrial North in search for better economic opportunities and civil liberties. This movement started slowly after the end of slavery and increased in the beginning of the 20th century, leading to significant cultural implications, such as the Harlem Renaissance movement and, of course, the spread of the Charleston dance.
One of the most significant African Cultures in Charleston that had one of the most significant impacts on the development of the Charleston dance was the Gullah/Geechie.
The Gullah – or Geechie – people were descendants of West Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Sea Islands – a chain of tidal and barrier islands along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida – to work on rice plantations. These African tribes were experts in growing rice, so they were specifically chosen and forcefully taken away from their homeland to work in the South. They developed their own language, which was English-based and creolized, and mainly spoken by the enslaved people in South Carolina and Georgia. Besides the language, they had their own cultural traditions, such as music and dance, which were passed from one generation to the next.
“Like African culture, Gullah culture did not separate music from dance. The unique rhythms and accompanying dance rituals of Gullah culture were often taken over by Charleston’s early jazz and ragtime musicians.” 
Among the musicians who were heavily influenced by the Gullah/Geechie culture and incorporated it into their music were the children of the Jenkins Orphanage Band.
If you want a deep dive into the history of this band, you can read our full article about the Jenkins Orphanage Band and its contribution to Jazz music and dance. But to make a long story short, in 1891, Reverend Joseph Jenkins – a formerly enslaved Black man – created the first orphanage for Black children in Charleston, SC. In order to help raise funds for the orphanage, Jenkins decided to put together a band with the children to play on the streets and gather donations.
The band turned out to be a huge success, being invited to perform all around the United States and abroad. When the band first got its start, it primarily played marching band music. As new fads appeared, they continued to adapt their repertoire to include new popular rhythms such as the Cakewalk and Ragtime.
Because the orphanage was located in Charleston, the children had close contact with the Gullah/Geechie culture, which was evident in their performances.
“True to tradition, the band featured young dancers who performed geechie steps in front of the musicians, conducting as they danced. Many scholars believe that the Jenkins Orphanage Band was largely responsible for spreading the Gullah inspired Charleston steps as they traveled the country trying to raise funds for the orphanage.” 
Since the band traveled frequently and received a lot of attention, they were able to spread their steps (and their culture) throughout the cities where they would perform. And, since audiences knew they came from Charleston, they started to refer to their steps and their way of dancing as “Charleston.”
Besides the Geechie culture and movement practices, there are several other African dance traditions that existed prior to the Charleston dance which surely had an impact on the movement.
The Jubba, which comes from the African word ‘Giouba’, was a competition dance where one dancer challenged another through a series of solos. It was usually performed by two male dancers inside of a circle of people who were clapping and stamping their feet (does that sound familiar? Hello, jam circle!). The dancers used a shuffling step (hello, tap dancing!) in which one foot was always lifted, and performed increasingly difficult and intricate movements in a call-and-response format interacting with the observers.
“The rhythmical slapping of the body was called patting. Patting was often used to accompany the Charleston and was an integral part of the social dance. The practice eventually evolved into the Charleston signature display step called bee’s knees, which involved crouching down and swinging the knees open and closed while simultaneously fanning the hands over them.” 
This step supposedly arrived in Charleston between 1735-1740 and was adopted by the enslaved plantation workers.
Also called ‘patting juba’ (‘Juba’ also being a term used for plantation songs) or ‘hambone’, this tradition was passed on through generations. Here is a great example of this fascinating dance done today.
The use of drums was very important as a means of communal gathering and a method of communication in African tribes. Slave owners often restricted, and eventually prohibited, the use of drums on plantations in order to prevent communicating without their knowledge.
“South Carolina legally banned the use of the drum after a large slave uprising in 1739… Many music historians… believe that this prohibition contributed to the development of the hambone.” 
Unable to use their drums to communicate and create music, those enslaved Africans started using their own body as a tool by stamping their feet, clapping their hands, and patting their whole bodies. The influence of such traditions is clearly visible in the Charleston with its polyrhythmic body movements, loose posture, and wild articulation of the knees.
Other dance traditions that were performed by enslaved Africans on the plantations, which surely contributed to the development of the Charleston, were: the Ring Shout, the Cakewalk, and the Jay-Bird.
A primary dance of the Gullah/Geechie culture was aptly named the Ring Shout. Performed in a circle, the dancers would tap and shuffle their feet, clap their hands, wave their arms and shout. Some historians have recognized some Shout steps which were later seen in the Charleston dance.
“Spontaneity and communal participation were essential elements. Although the main form of the Ring Shout was a group dance, solo forms developed as well, especially in North Carolina and Virginia.” 
The Cakewalk was another famous plantation dance, which is believed to be derivative of the Ring Shout. In the Cakewalk, plantation slaves would mimic the European style of dancing they saw white plantation owners do. The white dancers paraded in a grand march, with ladies and gentlemen moving different directions, making their way back to one another, and then marching down the center together. The moves involved flinging the legs into the air and throwing their heads back. The enslaved Africans, in turn, would imitate the moves while mocking the white way of dancing. The white ‘masters’ happened to be very entertained by the dancing of their workers – clearly not realizing that they were being mocked! As a prize to the couple who did the best moves, they would win a cake, hence its namesake.
You can see a few Cakewalk moves in this section of the documentary, “Spirit Moves” featuring dancers Al Minns, Leon James, and Pepsi Bethel.
Frankie Manning shared in his autobiography that he believed that the Charleston was influenced by a step named the Jay-Bird which involved twisting of the feet. It is said to have originated in the city of Charleston around 1903.
All these types of plantation dances would gain popularity when performed in minstrel shows, which were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment up until the turn of the 20th Century. Minstrel shows helped spread these styles of dance across various cities, where they would be ‘absorbed’ by the local population and often transformed into a new style of dancing, which is exactly what happened to the Charleston.
In the second part of this article, we will discuss some African and European influences on the Charleston, as well as who was considered to be the first Charleston dancer.
 Black History Month Activities: Play Some Hambone!, Dave Ruch
The history of the Charleston dance, Secrets of Solo
Silents are Golden: 5 Flapper-Themed Films From The 1920s, Classic Movie Hub
The Gullah History and Culture, Lillies of Charleston
The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston, the Charleston Public Library
Rice Culture, Gullah Museum
The Gullah Geechie People, Gullah Geechie Corridor
How Slavery flourished in the United States, National Geographic
Renaissance Dance, Library of Congress
Branle, The Society of Folk Dance Historians
“The Favorite”; the word “choreography”; baroque dance onstage and in the ballroom, in England and in France; Beauchamp-Feuillet notation… and more”, Alastair Macaulay
Bee Jackson’s 1926 Visit to Charleston: Behind the Scenes, Charleston Public Library
Collection of Newspaper articles about the band The Original Memphis Five from 1925-1929
 Doin’ The Charleston – Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy by Mark R. Jones, 2013
 The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances by Mark Knowles, 2009
Steppin’ on the Blues by Jacqui Malone, 1996
Jazz Dance by Jean and Marshall Sterns, 1968
A Gullah Guide to Charleston by Alphonso Brown, 2008
Frankie Manning – Ambassador of Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman, 2007
Gabs started dancing in 1995 at four years old and has never stopped. While spending a year abroad in Leeds, UK in 2012, she discovered the dances of the Jazz Age, fell hopelessly in love, and decided to dedicate her life to this passion. She acts as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, researcher, dj and event organizer primarily in Brazil, Chile, and other South American scenes. She specializes mainly in Lindy Hop, Authentic Jazz, 1920s’ Charleston and Collegiate Shag.
During the pandemic, Gabs has reinvented herself in order to bring people together through dance in an online format, by hosting online classes, sharing interesting information on social media and organizing big events, such as América Latina Swings. She is also a huge history geek and loves to dig deeper into the roots of Jazz music and dance.
As a guest in the culture, she honors the opportunity to share the legacy and culture of Black American artists who created this art form.