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How the Charleston changed the world

Posted on May 15, 2013

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With The Great Gatsby hitting UK cinema screens today, we revisit Zoë Anderson’s investigation of the cheeky, cheerful dance that changed an era


web-charleston-1-betterThe Charleston is irresistible. One of the best known craze dances, its rhythm and steps are an instant shorthand for the Roaring Twenties, for the Jazz Age, for a generation running wild in an era of new freedoms and rebellions. This was a dance where toes turned in, knees knocked, legs kicked high and arms went into big scarecrow poses. It’s an extravagant, thrill-seeking dance.


“As soon as you put the music on, people start to bounce to that rhythm,” explains Darren Royston of Nonsuch History and Dance. “When we teach it at Big Dance, or in one-off workshops, people will go with it. You jump in, and you keep going.”


The original Charleston craze started in 1923, with the song “The Charleston”, by Jimmy Johnson with words by Cecil Mack. Elizabeth Welch sang it in Runnin’ Wild, one of the Broadway revues that showcased black music and performers. The dance that went with it was picked up and copied, by other stage performers and by the public.


“It connected theatre with social dance,” Royston says. “Usually, social dances become theatricalised – Johan Strauss put waltzes in his operas because people were doing them in the ballrooms. The Charleston was a theatrical dance that people started to do. It requires you to do that level of performance, straight away.”


The Charleston upended normal dance rules. “Instead of having your feet parallel or turned out, they’re actually turned in. It had been done before in dance, and web-charleston3called ‘grotesque’, but then it becomes ‘wild’,” Royston explains. “The speed and the changes of the body are what you have to get, as you rehearse it.”


The Charleston wasn’t the first outrageous dance of the 20th century. Edwardian ballrooms had seen “animal” dances, such as the bear hug and the bunny hop. These were comic novelties, a contrast to more serious dancing. The Charleston was something else, a fully-fledged dance style.


At one of Royston’s recent workshops, he met a man in his late seventies, whose mother had taught him the Charleston as a boy, having danced it herself as part of the original craze. “I was teaching them very theatrically. But for this man – it was his dance. It was in his body. It wasn’t theatrical, it wasn’t over-performed, it was just felt. It was his rhythm. You see the pictures, and think it must have been crazy, but you still have to connect with it as a social dance.”


Strictly Come Dancing introduced the Charleston in 2009, when it was the breakthrough dance for Chris Hollins and Ola Jordan, who went on to win the trophy. In dance terms, Hollins isn’t the strongest celebrity to have won Strictly: he won on personality. It was the bouncy Charleston, which showed off that personality, that made him a serious contender.


Last year, the Charleston worked the same magic for winner Louis Smith and who can forget what our blogger Marianka Swain dubbed the “fish fingers and custard” of dances Denise Van Outen’s routine to “Walk Like An Egyptian”?


web-charleston6In the 1920s, the springy, energetic jazz dances were a break with the past, another reaction to a changed world. The First World War had shattered the certainties of the ordered Edwardian era, bringing horrific casualties, changed political systems and a newly mechanised age. 1920s hedonism was in part a reaction against so much loss and grief.


The romance novelist Barbara Cartland, whose father was one of millions killed in the war, remembered backing away from emotion as a 1920s flapper: “I couldn’t bear being involved in the tears and unhappiness that had affected my childhood following the death of my father… I just wanted to dance.”


The war had brought new freedoms for women, who had worked in previously male occupations, cutting their hair and wearing trousers. In 1918, women over 30 were given the right to vote. The Equal Franchise Bill, which in 1928 gave the vote to everyone over 21, was nicknamed “the flapper’s vote”. Skirts got much shorter, giving greater ease of movement. In 1921, pioneering doctor Marie Stopes opened Britain’s first family planning clinic.


Technology was changing fast. Motorcars began to be more available – still not cheap, but increasingly popular among the upper and middle classes. The first passenger airlines were set up. Aviators became heroes and heroines. Dances were named after new records: the lindy hop refers to Charles Lindberg, who “hopped” from New York to Paris in the first solo transatlantic flight.


The Charleston and the lindy hop were both craze dances, part of a dance boom. In Britain, new dance venues opened across the country, from West End nightclubs to working class dance halls. All classes were ready to respond to American jazz, to imported music and new dances.


The Dancing Times, our sister magazine, helped to bring the Charleston to Britain. In July 1925, “The Sitter Out” reported on the dance that was “captivating New York”: “The ‘Charleston’ may be described as a piece of music in foxtrot time with an accented beat slightly different from that of the ordinary foxtrot. It has a peculiar rhythm… a certain amount of ‘tricky’ foot work can be introduced.” “The Sitter Out”’s information came straight from New York, where British exhibition dancers Annette Mills and Robert Sielle had learned the Charleston.


Following this article, the Dancing Times arranged a “Charleston Tea”, at which Mills and Sielle explained the dance to “all the smart West End teachers”. By September, the Charleston was prominently featured in the magazine’s adverts for dance schools: demand had already taken off.


There were some hurdles. In August 1925, the American Port Arthur News reported on the “Simplified Charleston”: “The original Charleston is a very strenuous web-charleston-7dance,” explained “Oscar Duryen of New York, an American authority on ballroom dances”. “It was designed primarily for stage work and it is done to best advantage there. But every dancer in the country wants it and I have tried to simplify it enough so that all can do it and still have a dance like the original… It will be the big dance of the year. As yet there is nothing in sight which will even be noticed by the youngsters who want something fast and snappy.”


In ballrooms, the Charleston was a couple dance; on stage, stars such as Josephine Baker danced it as a solo, adding comic and virtuoso steps: “donkey kicks”, the famous “monkey knees”. In an article called “Taming the Charleston”, the Dancing Times complained of the effect of the solo Charleston on impressionable amateurs: “Hundreds of wild youths endeavoured to copy their kicking and stamping steps and to adapt them to the ballroom, with disastrous results. It was positively unsafe to go within two yards of any couple performing these ridiculous antics.”


Many dance halls, from the Piccadilly Hotel to the Hammersmith Palais, banned the dance altogether. Others put up signs: “PCQ” (Please Charleston Quietly).


On both sides of the Atlantic, newspapers and moralists rushed to condemn the craze. “Any lover of the beautiful will die rather than be associated with the Charleston,” complained the Rev E W Walters, vicar of St Aidan’s, Bristol, in 1926. “It is neurotic! It is rotten! It stinks! Phew, open the windows.” By 1927, police in Newcastle complained that young people were obstructing traffic by dancing the Charleston in the street.


When a Boston building collapsed in 1925, newspapers pounced on the fact that it had contained a nightclub. “Scientists declare that the vigour with which a hundred dancers… kept time to the Charleston’s peculiar and strongly accented rhythm was the direct cause of the five-storey building’s collapse… If some far less strenuous dance had taken the Charleston’s place… the disaster would, science believes, never have occurred.”


Then there were the health worries. “How Science Says the Charleston ‘Churns Up’ Your System: Too Much of It Produces Water On the Knee, Overstrained Heart, Twisted Ligaments and a Dozen Other Disorders, According to the Specialists Who View With Alarm Its Mounting Casualty List,” proclaimed an excited headline from March 1926.


Some of the scaremongers had a point. “I have to say the same things to students now,” says Darren Royston, “because it is hard on the knees if you’re doing it full-out!” He even has some sympathy for the Rev E W Walters’ “‘Phew, open the windows.” 

“If you imagine, with no deodorant, people working up a sweat very quickly. There would be a stink. There is a health and safety issue, warming up and cooling down.” 

web-charleston4None of the warnings stopped people. Broadway chorus girls danced a four-mile Charleston marathon down New York’s Fifth Avenue, avoiding traffic as they went. In Britain, Charleston Balls were held at huge venues, including the Royal Albert Hall. The Dancing Times presented another at the Princes Galleries, Piccadilly, with editor P J S Richardson, Fred Astaire and his sister Adele Astaire as judges. In one of the most famous publicity stunts of the 1920s, a couple danced the Charleston on top of a London taxi.

The craze reached its height in 1926. By 1927, newer dances were making an appearance; aspects of the Charleston went into the lindy hop. By the 1930s, longer skirts and smoother styles came back into fashion. The Charleston remained ready for rediscovery. It had revivals in the 1950s and 1960s; I remember children doing “monkey knees” at my Edinburgh primary school in the early 1980s. Last year, it made an immediate impact on “Strictly”. As I was writing this article, half the Dance Today editorial staff were tempted into trying out Charleston steps.

“It’s an infectious rhythm,” says Darren. “In workshops, even when people are dancing on their own, they automatically find someone to do their little shunt steps to. I remember teaching one man, asking, ‘Have you got it?’ He said, ‘Well, I think I’ve got the steps, I’ve got the arms, but I haven’t got your eyebrows!’ Because I was doing this” – Royston opens his eyes wide with every shunt. “I realised, that’s it – you’re so in the dance, that you have to move everything you can move, in a syncopated way. You can’t do it as an introverted dance!”


Photographs from the Dancing Times archive


Where to dance the Charleston in the UK…


Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Today she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success. Her debut novel, The Girl Before You, was published last year in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

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