While in Charleston recently on a mini-honeymoon, my wife Jessica and I ran into a history tour guide who asked us our story. When he heard we were swing dancers, he told us about a book a fellow historian, Mark R. Jones, wrote, called “Doin’ The Charleston.”
The book is engaging, respectfully written, and shines a fascinating light on the music and dances of ragtime and hot jazz. It especially highlights the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which played a large role in the creation of jazz and was home to many of its first pioneers.
Inspired to dig a little deeper, here is a quick history of the most iconic dance step in jazz history, the Charleston. If you want more, you know where to go.
- A Country Runnin’ Wild
It was in the middle of the 1920s, when the jazz age was going strong, that America encountered one of its first and greatest nation-wide fads: The Charleston. In 1923 the Charleston was famously danced on the stage to a song in the popular all-Black Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. (The song is the one that comes into your head when you hear the word “Charleston.” It was composed by Black-American James P. Johnson, one of the early -20th -century’s greatest American masters of composition.)
However, that wasn’t the first time the Charleston was danced. It was wasn’t even the first time it was danced on Broadway — it had been danced in several all-Black Broadway shows before Runnin’ Wild, just none that were smash hits.
It also wasn’t simply coincidence that the song and dance were both named “Charleston.” The composer, Johnson, had seen the step done as early as the 1910s, when he was improvising piano music for dancers at clubs — most of the dancers doing the step had come from Charleston, and so he called the dance songs he wrote for them “Charlestons.” Other Black performers from South Carolina had done similar steps often enough that they were referred to as “Geechee” or “Gullah” steps, referring to the specific Black culture of Charleston and “the low country.”
(For a look at some of this “Gullah” dancing, check out this link of Jenkins Orphanage Band performance. (Huge shout out to Rik Panginban at Yehoodi for finding this clip. You can see it on Yehoodi’s “Origins of the Charleston: the Jenkins Orphanage Band and the Gullah Community.”.))
- The little city that made a big mark
But why was Charleston culture prominent enough in New York to make its way into a Broadway musical, from which mainstream America took many of its cultural cues?
From the beginning of the nation’s history, the three main harbors on the East Coast have been New York, Boston, and Charleston, with constant traffic between the three. This made it relatively easy for people of Charleston to travel to New York, especially those who worked in the shipping or entertainment industries. It was these very workers Johnson played music for in the clubs.
Charleston culture was much more prominent in jazz in general than we realize today. There was even such a noticeable group of Charleston jazz musicians that “rice” became a nickname they’d use for each other — rice being the main crop of Charleston.
Rice is much more important to this story than you might think. Rice is probably the best answer to how the low country came to have such a specific and strong sub-culture as Gullah.
Because Charleston was growing rice and was the main port for slave ships, it got many of its enslaved people directly from the “Rice Coast” of Africa, the land along West Africa’s coast where the cultures knew how to cultivate rice.
Whereas most other areas of the south’s enslave peoples were a large mixture of African cultures, who thus had difficulty keeping their cultural identity, the large numbers of Coastal West Africans in the Carolinas helped keep a strong cultural presence there. Over the generations in America, it evolved into its own American-African hybrid, Gullah culture.
- Made in…Africa?
Though the dance step was perhaps in many ways “made in Carolina,” the ingredients, possibly the entire recipe, came from Africa. We don’t know how far back the Charleston step truly began.
According to famous jazz dance historian Marshall Stearns, the step most likely came from Ashanti African dance. He doesn’t say whyit most likely came from there, but we should note that Ashanti culture does come from the “rice coast” region of Africa.
Brought to the low country of America during slavery, whatever pieces that came from Africa survived and evolved in the South, staying in the Black culture of the Charleston region until they adapted it to ragtime and jazz music.
So, the step was probably around a long time before the ‘20s.
Once it hit Broadway in 1923, the Charleston step swept across the nation and came to define the jazz age. Even though it was a mainstream infatuation for only a few years, it’s hard to underestimate in modern terms how big of a fad it was. We have experienced nothing that so completely engulfed all of American culture. Black, White, rich, poor; anyone could — and did — do the simple stylized step. (“It’s not that simple,” you’re saying, after spending many hours of burning calf-muscles trying to twist your feet in time as you step back and forth.)
It very quickly developed a partnered form, which became the parent of Lindy Hop, and possibly one of the parents of the California swing dance LA Swing, which was itself one of the parents of Bal-Swing.
So, yeah, the scene owes a great debt to those Charleston dancers who went out dancing at clubs in New York City, doing their Gullah dance step.