On October 29th, 1923, a black musical named Runnin’ Wild opened on Broadway, with songs by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack. The first act of the show ended with the song “Charleston.” Elizabeth Welsh, as the character of Ruth Little in the show, performed the dance with chorus boys called the “Dancing Redcaps.” Elida Webb, the choreographer, claimed to have invented the dance, which, of course, was not true.
The dance called the Charleston has deep roots that trace back to the Ashanti tribe from the Gold Coast of Africa. As those Africans were enslaved and brought into America, many of their tribal customs were passed down through generations living on South Carolina low country plantations along the coast. By the turn of the 20th century hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves, called “geechie” – slang for people from the low country, had moved to Chicago and New York for economic opportunity. Their syncopated minstrel-style music of the 1890s became ragtime, blues and ultimately, jazz. The Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston performed on the streets of Harlem during the first decade of the 20th century and the description of their dance steps sounds very much like the modern-day Charleston.
In fact, the composer of the song “Charleston,” James P. Johnson, talked about his inspiration for the song.
“The people who came to The Jungle Casino [Harlem] were mostly from around Charleston, S.C. They picked their [dance] partners with care that would give them a chance to get off. It was while playing for these Southern dancers that I composed a number of Charlestons, eight of them, all with the same dance rhythm. One of these later became my famous ‘Charleston’ when it hit Broadway.”
Another Harlem piano player, Willie “the Lion” Smith recalled that “the kids from the Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston used to do Geechie steps when they were in New York on their yearly tour.” What cannot be denied is that by the end of 1923 everybody in America was doing the Charleston.
Nothing else epitomizes the spirit and joyous exuberance of the 1920s as the Charleston. Other dance crazes have had their fifteen minutes of fame: the Waltz, the Tango, the Hokey-pokey, the Twist, the Hustle, the Macarena, and even Break dancing. None of them, however, managed to influence and infect an entire generation so thoroughly the way the Charleston did. Almost 100 years later, the image of the Jazz Age is always a Flapper doing the Charleston. No other American decade can be so neatly summed up in one simple image.
Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York quickly turned out hundreds of “Charleston” songs. Charleston contests became a regular part of Dance halls and hotels everywhere, from big cities to small towns. One of the most famous scenes in American cinema is the Charleston dancing contest in It’s A Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed falling into the swimming pool as the dance floor opens up. Hospitals across America began to admit patients complaining of “Charleston knee.”
Many non-dancing jobs of the day required black employees to be competent to dance or teach the Charleston in order to be hired. There were hundreds of advertisements in the New York papers looking for a waiter, a maid, a cook, or a gardener with the stipulation: “Must be able to Charleston!”
However, not everyone was infected with Charleston fever. In London, sixty teachers of ballroom dancing were taught the “Charleston” in July 1925 and pronounced it “vulgar.” That is, until the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward, learned it and performed it very skillfully in public. The Vicar of St. Aidan’s however, thought that “any lover of the beautiful will die rather than be associated with the Charleston. It is neurotic! It is rotten! It stinks! Phew, open the windows!”
In 1925, tragedy struck. The press found a physician in Seneca, Kansas, who claimed that “pretty Evelyn Myers,” age 17, had died of peritonitis brought on by dancing the Charleston too violently. Variety Magazine reported that in Boston, the vibrations of Charleston dancers were so strong that it caused the Pickwick Club to collapse, killing fifty of its patrons. The headline screamed:
WAS THIS BUILDING STAMPED DOWN BY ‘CHARLESTON’ DANCERS?
More than 200 people – police, fireman and volunteers – worked for twenty hours digging through the rubble of the building to free the trapped victims. Following the catastrophe, the Boston mayor’s office issued an edict banning the Charleston from public dance-halls. Other cities followed suit, banning the dancing of the Charleston for safety reasons, but nothing could stop the Charleston stampede. The more the authorities preached against it, the more popular the Charleston became.
Mayor Frank Borden, Jr, of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, outlawed the dance from the city-owned ballroom. He cited “broken shins” as his reason. “I have no objection to a person dancing their feet and head off, but I think it best that they keep away from the Charleston.” Richard Zober of Passaic, New Jersey also banned the Charleston in his town. “I think it would be safer and better for all concerned,” he said. An article syndicated by the International Feature Service read:
“From coast to coast the ‘Charleston’ has caught the country swaying to its curious rhythm. No dance, since jazz first came into vogue, has created such a furor. Enthusiasts ecstatically stamp to its syncopated measures, while others, equally in earnest, denounce it. But the controversy that is carried on everywhere concerning this latest mania has failed to stem its tide of popularity. America is “Charleston” mad!”
Emil Coleman, a famous orchestra leader, declared that the “Charleston” is “the most characteristically American of any of the modern dances whose peculiar accent in time is the musical expression of the native (black) temperament.” One female evangelist in Oregon called the Charleston “the first and easiest step toward hell.”
Some dance ballrooms gave up trying to discourage the frenetic Charleston all together and just posted large signs on the dance floor that read: PCQ – PLEASE CHARLESTON QUIETLY!