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PHOTO ESSAY

Origins of Popular Dance

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The Charleston craze

Members of Washington, D.C.'s Palace Club basketball team join instructor Vivian Marinelli in dancing the Charleston (c. 1925). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Before the Charleston was the Charleston—flappers, Model Ts, and all—it was the Juba, or Giouba. The dance, a vigorous jig-like motion that involved whirling around a circle on one foot, was brought to South Carolina from the west-Central African Kingdom of Kongo in the mid-18th century. Though many slaves arriving in South Carolina were transported to New Orleans (the site of Congo Square, a well-known space for slaves to dance), the name "Charleston" was eventually bestowed by whites in acknowledgment of the dance's perceived origins. By the end of slavery the dance continued to evolve apace, and postwar economic and demographic transition "accelerated cross-fertilization" among freedmen, helping "older plantation dances . . . [to] combine with new, urbanized forms" (Hazzard-Donald). By the late 1800s the Charleston, now a uniquely African American art form, had become an integral part of the minstrel show. In 1923, it jumped the race line, leaping into popular American culture on the heels of the enormously successful Broadway show Runnin' Wild, a creation of famous stride pianist James P. Johnson. The revue's showcase number was "Charleston," "perhaps the defining song of America in the 1920s;" after its Broadway run, the show toured for the next five years (Kernfeld). In New York City, enthused whites began regularly visiting black nightclubs such as the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater. Interest in the Charleston, aided by the steady immigration of African Americans to the dense cities of the industrial north, also brought national attention to other black-created dances—many themselves derivations of the Charleston—such as the Black Bottom, Lindy Hop, and Jitterbug.

Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. "United States of America - African-American Social Dance." In International Encyclopedia of Dance. Edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Kernfeld, Barry. "Johnson, James P." American National Biography Online. 2010.

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