The Legacy of the Charleston

Presented by NFA member and guest blogger, Paulette Brockington, whose organization Artspectrum/A Company of Dancers is the host of the American Lindy Hop Championships.

I so want to say that this article about the Charleston has a grand moral to the story like Aesop’s Fables. Alas, it does not. I want to be able to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I can say that, but Charles Dickens already did in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens goes on to say “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” This is really so true even when applying it a half century after it was penned.

My commentary about the Charleston started when, on YouTube, I watched a video about dance crazes. Actually there’ve been a couple that were unabashedly inaccurate. One of the video authors said that James P. Johnson composed the song “The Charleston” (1925) and magically the world started doing it. NOT. I signed in and told them so. I’m sure they don’t care. I do. So just to be sure you know the dance was created in Charleston, SC around 1914. The world prior to that had been doing the Peabody, the Texas Tommy and was on the path to creating some 114 animal dances. The only one to remain popular after the first world war the Foxtrot. The Foxtrot managed to skirt the stain of war and prosper in the Jazz Age and beyond. So now back to the Charleston.

We owe the Charleston so much. It helped those rebellious younguns throw off the shackles of Victorian apparel, including those lace-up, high-topped shoes that used to flap when they walked because they couldn’t be bothered to lace them all the way. And who could blame them (except of course their parents) when World War I was raging and family and friends were dying. They HAD TO live life to the fullest, however else would the leave their mark. Their dance is part of that mark.

One video put Swing dance in the mid-1920s. Booooooo! Usually they lump Charleston and Black Bottom together for the 1920s with little or no differentiation between the two. At least I can understand that. They were kindred. And we should remember that dancers and musicians fed off each other turning The Jazz Age into the Swing Era.

I will give James P. Johnson props here. He was a pioneer of the stride style of jazz piano. He was one of the most important pianists who bridged the ragtime and jazz eras, and, with Jelly Roll Morton, one of the two most important catalysts in the evolution of ragtime piano into jazz. As such, he was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Without him we wouldn’t have the Swing Era we’ve come to love. It simply wouldn’t be the same.

So I toyed with the idea of doing my own top 10 dance crazes with a accurate timeline; tracing swing dance’s birth or just putting together some nice clips that might make you smile. At any rate the U.S.’s worldwide dance crazes start in the nineteen-teens with Charleston and it’s many variations. (Yes I know I skipped the Cakewalk. But it really isn’t a couples dance.) Dancers in the ‘twenties made an animal dance mainstream with the Black Bottom.

Then, of course, there’s the Lindy Hop. It took Charleston, that jazzy Foxtrot, the Breakaway and all those solo jazz dances people were doing and became distinctively different from other dances of the time. The dance named Lindy Hop in 1927 really was renamed a half dozen times by Shorty George Snowden before he went back to Lindy Hop. That last time stuck. The 1927 version was different from the 1930s version. We should all recognize that, because after all, the dancers fed off the musicians and the musicians were inspired by the dancers’ steps. Music styles broadened and the dancing that accompanied it morphed too. So we should thank the Jazz Age for throwing out the Castle Walk, the Peabody, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hop, the Turkey Trot and so many others then taking that jazzy Foxtrot and bequeathed us the rock step and triple time swing. They used the chaos within them to give birth to a legacy of dances. Nietzsche, kind of, said that.

Paulette Brockington is Artistic Director of Detroit’s A Company of Dancers. She is on the faculties of WCCCD and the Worship Arts Conservatory and a Master Teacher at Michigan State University. On the swing dance circuit she is a former World Fast Dance Champion, World Swing Dance Champion and Open Hustle Champion. She directs the American Lindy Hop Championships, coaches & teaches around the world.

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