While the dance probably came from the "star" or challenge dances that were all part of the African-American dance called Juba, the particular sequence of steps which appeared in Runnin' Wild were probably newly devised for popular appeal. "At first, the step started off with a simple twisting of the feet, to rhythm in a lazy sort of way. When the dance hit Harlem, a new version was added. It became a fast kicking step, kicking the feet, both forward and backward and later done with a tap." Further changes were undoubtedly made before the dance was put on stage. In the words of Harold Courlander, while the Charleston had some characteristics of traditional Negro dance, it "was a synthetic creation, a newly-devised conglomerate tailored for wide spread popular appeal. Although the step known as "Jay-Bird", and other specific movement sequences are of Afro-American origin, no record of the Charleston being performed on the plantation has been discovered.
Although it achieved popularity when the song "Charleston", sung by Elisabeth Welch, was added in the production Runnin' Wild, the dance itself was first introduced in Irving C. Miller's Liza in the spring of 1923.
The characteristic Charleston beat, which Johnson said he first heard from Charleston dockworkers, incorporates the clave rhythm and was considered by composer and critic Gunther Schuller to be synonymous with the Habanera, and the Spanish Tinge. Johnson actually recorded several "Charlestons," and in later years derided most of them as being of "that same damn beat." Several of these were recorded on player piano rolls, several of which have survived to this day.
The Charleston and similar dances such as the Black Bottom which involved "Kicking up your heels" were very popular in the later part of the 1920s. They became less popular after 1930, possibly because after seven years of being fashionable people simply became less interested. The new fashion for floor level sheath evening dresses was also probably a factor. The new dresses constricted the leg movements essential for the Charleston. There is a British Pathé Instructional Short from 1933 in which a new variation – The "Crawl Charleston" – is demonstrated by Santos Casini and Jean Mence. This shows a very sedate version of dance similar to a Tango or Waltz. It wasn't until dress hem lines rose toward the end of the thirties that the Charleston is again seen in film.
The Charleston was one of the dances from which Lindy Hop and Jazz Roots developed in the late 1930s. A slightly different form of Charleston became popular in the 1930s and '40s, and is associated with Lindy Hop. In this later Charleston form, the hot jazz timing of the 1920s Charleston was adapted to suit the swing jazz music of the '30s and '40s. This style of Charleston has many common names, though the most common are Lindy Charleston, Savoy Charleston, '30s or '40s Charleston and Swing(ing) Charleston. In both '20s Charleston and Swinging Charleston, the basic step takes eight counts and is danced either alone or with a partner.
Frankie Manning and other Savoy dancers saw themselves as doing Charleston steps within the Lindy rather than to be dancing Charleston.
Solo 1920s Charleston competition
Solo 1920s Charleston competitions often utilize elements of the jam circle format, where individual competitors take turns dancing alone for the audience (usually for intervals of a phrase or number of phrases). Competitors move forwards to the audience out of an informal line, usually taking advantage of this movement to perform 'strolls' or other 'traveling' steps, taking the opportunity to "shine".
Despite the emphasis on solo dancing in these sorts of competitions, there is often much interaction between competitors and between the audience and competitors, frequently in the employment of comic devices (such as "silly walks" or impersonations) or showy and physically impressive "stunt" moves. This type of interaction is typical of the call and response of West African and Aphro-American music and dance. In this call and response, audiences and fllow competitors encourage dancers with cheers, shouts, applause, physical gestures and other feedback.
This sort of competition structure is increasingly popular in Lindy Hop communities around the world, providing added challenges for dancers, new types of pleasure for audiences and emphasizing social dancing skills such as improvisation and musicality. This structure also echoes the cutting contests of jazz music which Ralph Ellison describes in his stories about live jazz music in the 1930s.
Partner Charleston uses the basic step described above, though stylistic changes over the 1920s, '30s and '40s affected the styling, as well as ways of holding a partner. Traditionally partner Charleston was danced by a man and woman, but now both men and women may dance with same sex partners.