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Tracing the Roots of the “Charleston” Dance
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The dance craze known as the “Charleston” achieved world-wide fame nearly a century ago and has endured as the epitome of the carefree exuberance of the “Roaring Twenties.” Although this popular phenomenon shares a name with our home town, it arose from cultural ingredients stewing in the melting pot of New York City at the crest of the Jazz Age. We might not have invented the “Charleston” in Charleston, but evidence suggests that residents of the Palmetto City and of the Lowcountry in general provided the inspiration and key elements that define its iconic rhythm and footwork.
The “Charleston” is a multi-faceted cultural phenomenon that arose during the early 1920s. It’s a dance, it’s a tune, and it’s a set of lyrics (which most people have never heard). All three forms first captured public attention in late October 1923 in a Broadway revue called Runnin’ Wild, which ran for more than seven months at the New Colonial Theater in midtown Manhattan. That African-American production included music by James P. Johnson (1894–1955), lyrics by Cecil Mack (1873–1944), and the talents of a large cast of black singers and dancers. The popular success of Runnin’ Wild catapulted the “Charleston” to national and international fame within a period of less than two years. To this day, the “Charleston” is closely associated with the decade of the 1920s, an era frequently called the “Jazz Age.” Despite the existence of Federal laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, that decade is largely remembered as an era of exuberant parties, superficial glamor, energetic jazz, and hedonistic excess in general. Separately and in tandem, the dance and the tune called “Charleston” epitomize the gay spirit of the “Roaring Twenties.”
So it’s a fair question to ask: What—if anything—does the cultural phenomenon known as the “Charleston” have to do with the city and county of Charleston, South Carolina? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, but I’m willing to give it a try, as long as we all agree that we cannot plumb the full depth of this topic in one podcast. With that caveat, I’ll try to follow a narrow path through the dense cultural history and lead you to a reasonably satisfactory answer. In short, the connection between the “Charleston” music and dance and the place we call home is indirect, elusive, and difficult to articulate. Nevertheless, I assure you that a connection most definitely exists.
The genesis of the “Charleston” phenomenon in New York City in the early 1920s was a direct result of a large population shift now known as the “Great Migration.” During the first half of the twentieth century, millions of Americans of African descent left their homes in the various Southern states and moved northward in search of economic opportunities and greater civil liberties. This exodus began quietly in the years after the end of slavery in 1865 and increased a bit around the turn of the twentieth century as the so-called “Jim Crow” laws adopted by Southern states generally eroded the already-poor quality of life afforded to non-white citizens here. The stream of African Americans moving northward swelled significantly during World War I and remained strong for several decades. Historians of this phenomenon estimate that more than six million black Americans moved from the largely-agricultural South to the largely-industrial North between 1910 and 1970.
This sustained mass movement of people resulted in significant and long-lasting changes in our national economy and political demographics. It also had powerful cultural implications. People of African descent had been living and working in the Southern states for nearly three centuries before the 1920s, melding and adapting African cultural traditions amongst themselves and interacting with both Native American and European culture. Northern communities like New York weren’t completely devoid of their own African-American culture, of course, but the Great Migration infused communities like Harlem with a flood of new practices and energy. That fertile environment gave rise to a profusion of cultural expression that became known as the Harlem Renaissance in New York and similar phenomena in other Northern cities.
The “Charleston,” meaning both the song and the dance, serves as an excellent example of the cultural effects of the Great Migration. James P. Johnson, whose infectious and original “Charleston” tune is known around the globe, later said he had borrowed its distinctive syncopated rhythm from South Carolina longshoremen who had migrated to New York. Anyone familiar with the traditions of Gullah-Geechee spirituals will recognize that rhythm as an integral part of a Lowcountry shout or “ring shout,” so it’s not difficult to hear some truth in his statement. While working as a pianist in a nightclub frequented by former Charlestonians, Johnson improvised piano music to match their distinctive footwork and handclapping rhythms. Although a native of New Jersey, Johnson also demonstrated his familiarity with the Lowcountry his neighbors left behind in other compositions like his Carolina Shout of 1921 and his extended “Negro Rhapsody” of 1928 called Yamecraw.
Other early descriptions of the footwork associated with the “Charleston” dance mention New Yorkers observing Gullah-Geechee migrants strutting their vernacular stuff in Harlem nightclubs. A century after its birth, it’s now impossible to identify a specific person or event or location that directly inspired the creation of the “Charleston” dance, but contemporary newspaper reports provide useful clues. The success of Runnin’ Wild and its signature dance number caught the attention of local journalists, who in turn tried to describe the new phenomenon to a broader audience. Within a year of the show’s Broadway debut, even the Charleston Evening Post took note of the publicity and joined the growing conversation about the new dance craze.
“Something new in the way of advertising for Charleston is developing quite rapidly in New York,” said the Post in early November 1924, “and, if it follows the usual course, will in due time become the newest rage in the terpsichorean art.” More importantly for our fair city, the local press noted that the new dance sensation will “have the name of ‘Charleston’ on the tongues of thousands throughout the country.” That bold prediction proved to underestimate the dance’s international appeal, of course, but we have to remember that the “Charleston” seemed little more than a passing fad in 1924. Because the new dance was reputed to have authentic roots in the Palmetto City, however, the editors of the Evening Post deemed it necessary to reprint the entire text of a story from the New York World: I’d like to share the text, too, because I think it represents the best contemporary summary of the genesis of the “Charleston” dance:
“‘Can you do the ‘Charleston?’ That is the question generally asked in Harlem among negroes, irrespective of age, size or physical condition. In other sections of New York City the “Charleston” has its enthusiastic devotees, but not so many as in the 135th Street and Lenox Avenue district where they energetically indulge in this terpsichorean specialty on the ball room floor, in cabarets, ratskellers and even in the home.
On the street corners, day and night, crowds assemble to watch urchins ‘do the Charleston’ for voluntary contributions ranging from a penny upward. ‘Charleston’ contests are conducted weekly in North Harlem theaters patronized largely by negroes. On some occasions 30 or more contestants, usually boys, give individual exhibitions.
Danced somewhat indifferently by a few local negroes prior to the engagement of ‘Runnin’ Wild’ in the Colonial theater last season, the ‘Charleston’ began to grow in popularity when 22 girls and three boys in the colored production put it over in spectacular fashion at the close of the first act of a musical number of that name, written by Cecil Mack and Jimmie Johnson. Quick to appreciate something new and novel was being offered in the realm of dancing, white Broadway musical shows immediately made the ‘Charleston’ a feature.
The ‘Charleston,’ apparently of African origin and characterized by [a] tom-tom beat, is described as the wing of the buck and wing dance, only the dancer steps forward and backward instead of sideways. Usually, it is done without musical accompaniment and to the clapping of hands in two-four time. It is said to have been brought to New York by negroes formerly living in Charleston, S.C., having been first danced on the neighboring islands by negroes known as the “Geeche[e].
In recent months, the ‘Charleston’ has been supplemented with many new steps, the two most popular being the ‘camel walk’ and the ‘black bottom.’ To be a successful and graceful dancer of the ‘Charleston,’ agility and nimbleness of foot are the requisites—avoirdupois [heavy weight] being a decided handicap.”
Although it may be impossible to identify the specific individuals and incidents that catalyzed the “Charleston” phenomenon in early-twentieth-century Harlem, this 1924 newspaper report contains a few clues that appear to support a belief long-held here in Charleston. It mentions that most of the early practitioners of the dance steps were “boys”—specifically, poor boys or “urchins”—who frequently appeared on street corners giving “exhibitions” for pennies and other loose change. For readers familiar with the history of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, these words instantly call to mind the band’s annual migrations in the early twentieth century, during which they played and danced on street corners in Northern cities to raise money for their Charleston home. As the late Jack McCray described in his 2007 book about Charleston Jazz, musicians in the Palmetto City have long believed that it was the young boys of the touring Jenkins Orphanage Band who introduced both the distinctive rhythm and footwork that characterize the “Charleston” dance phenomenon.
For those of you not so familiar with the history of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, I’ll offer a brief synopsis to bring you up to speed. In December 1891, the Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins (1862–1937) established an Orphan Aid Society to assist indigent black children living in the lower wards of urban Charleston. (Rev. John L. Dart’s school, founded in 1895, served black children on the city’s north side). Reverend Jenkins’s work included a day school for boys and girls and an orphanage to house the neediest children. To help raise money for these charitable institutions, the Orphan Aid Society immediately sought to capitalize on one of the most valuable talents within the city’s black community: music. The Society solicited donations of band instruments and recruited some young adult black musicians to instruct some of the school children. By the mid-1890s, the Jenkins Orphanage, as it was commonly called, had a band of more than a dozen young boys who could play ragged versions of popular songs and dance tunes. Many writers have described the Jenkins Orphanage Band as the “cradle of jazz” in Charleston, but the roots of African-American band music in this city extend back nearly two centuries before Reverend Jenkins started his orphanage. That long and complicated story merits its own conversation, so for the present we’ll stick to the early twentieth century.
The youthful Jenkins Orphanage Band was a fixture of the local music scene—not only in Charleston, but in other communities as well. Every year for nearly half a century, the band set out by rail, steamship, and motor bus with adult chaperones to perform from Maine to Miami. They toured Southern cities in the winter months, and headed north every summer. At their peak in the 1920s, there were four Jenkins Orphanage bands on the road at the same time, and, for a while, an all-girl band as well. In communities with large black populations, the bands played indoor concerts and entertained crowds at barbeques and parties. Most of their performances took place on street corners and sidewalks, however, where they gathered pennies and nickels from passing pedestrians.
Surviving descriptions, photographs, moving pictures, and personal recollections all demonstrate that footwork was an integral part of the Jenkins Orphanage band’s routine. While the standing musicians might have been too busy making noise to dance in place, the ubiquitous band leader was often the star of the show. The smallest and perhaps youngest member or members of the troupe—perhaps too young to play an instrument—usually stood in front of the band, dancing and waving his arms in time with the music. Ostensibly “conducting” the performance, he was really putting on a show to entertain the audience. The energy and novelty of the young conductor’s fancy footwork was a key element in the band’s fund-raising success. Did the conductor perform “the” Charleston steps? We may never know for sure, but it seems likely that some Charleston-like moves were part of his physical repertoire.
Back in Charleston, fires at the Jenkins Orphanage headquarters in December 1936 and again in November 1988 destroyed most of the institution’s early records. One sound recording survives from a grainy 1928 newsreel, but the poor quality of its audio provides only a hint of the band’s brassy sound. The paucity of surviving resources now renders it difficult to reconstruct the details of the band’s musical characteristics, the itinerary its annual migrations, and the identity of its youthful participants. Thanks to surviving newspaper reports and oral histories, however, we know that Manhattan and Harlem were regular stops. It’s quite possible, therefore, that New Yorkers, specifically Harlemites, learned the distinctive rhythm and footwork that became known as the “Charleston” not from anonymous dockworkers who had migrated northward from the Palmetto City, but from the energetic boys in the Jenkins Orphanage Band.
In short, the “Charleston” dance phenomenon was a product of various cultural forces originating in Africa and Europe that germinated in the crucible of Charleston and blossomed in Harlem in the early 1920s. It arose from the urban black community and was quickly imitated by white artists who introduced it to broader audiences in New York and around the world. Over the past ninety-odd years, tens of millions of people have enjoyed its rhythm and energy that came to epitomize the Jazz Age. Even if they know nothing about our fair city by the sea, at least they know the name of Charleston.
In fact, the marketing and distribution of the “Charleston” dance represents another chapter in the history of this cultural phenomenon. If you’ve read any book or article about the history of the “Charleston” dance, or searched the vast digital ocean of the Internet for information on this topic, you’ve surely seen an image of a young white female dancing the “Charleston” with the uniformed boys of the Jenkins Orphanage Band standing behind her. That photograph, which has been reproduced thousands of times, was staged here in Charleston in the spring of 1926 as part of a promotional campaign, but few people remember the curious story behind its creation. Next week, we’ll continue this dance theme with the story of Beatrice Adelaide Jackson and her campaign to become the international queen of the “Charleston.”
 Jack McCray, Charleston Jazz (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2007).
 Charleston Evening Post, 4 November 1924, page 12, “Can you Dance the Charleston?” quoting an article of the same title by Lester A. Walton in the New York World, 3 November 1924.
 Extant descriptions of the band’s precise movements on tour are now rare, but a very useful example appears in New York Times, 1 August 1912, page 6, “Concert by Negro Children.”