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Mon, 10.05.1903

“The Charleston” African roots passed down through Dance

The Charleston is celebrated on this date. This is a dance style influenced by African culture and started during slavery in America.

Some historians assert that the "Ashante Peoples" of Africa were the originators of the dance, with it being carried on and modified by slaves against the enforced rules of their masters. There are also descriptions and pictures of a dance in the Harper's Weekly Magazine, 1866, that is very similar to the Charleston.  Specifically, Blacks living on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina, originated the steps. The Charleston was performed as early as 1903, and evolved into Harlem stage productions by 1913.  Also, the Charleston dance established itself (worldwide) during the Ragtime-Jazz period.

In 1922, it was brought to show business and went public at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York when a "Ziegfeld Follies" production featured the Charleston. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake introduced a young Ned Wayburn.  He demonstrated what was to be the signature step of the Charleston. Wayburn (supposedly) choreographed a few more steps and Sissle and Blake wrote the songs. It was an immediate hit. In the same year, a stage play by the name of "Liza" introduced the dance. Again on October 29, 1923, in the Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles Broadway show "Runnin' Wild," Edith Mae Barnes claimed it was she who introduced the dance in that musical.

During the 1920s, women that did the Charleston were called "Flappers" because of the way they would flap their arms and walk like birds while dancing. Many men wore raccoon coats and straw hats. Not everyone had good luck with the Charleston. Some jobs of the day required employees to be competent to dance or teach the Charleston in order to get work such as waiters and waitresses. Others saw the Charleston and flappers as the downfall to many moral issues of the day.

In 1925, Variety Magazine reported that in Boston, the vibrations of Charleston dancers were so strong that the dancers caused the "Pickwick Club" (a tenderloin dance hall) to collapse, killing 50.

Reference:
The Ghost Walks:
A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910
Henry T. Sampson
Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ., 1988), p.321

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