This Is How To Dance The Charleston—And Why You Should Learn

Lace up those dancing shoes.

This is How to Dance the Charleston–and Why You Should Learn
Photo: NINA LEEN/Getty Images

No dance floor? No problem. Learn the Charleston (after you've picked up the Shag), and you can take the party with you. Named for none other than Charleston, South Carolina, this dance gained popularity in the U.S. thanks to a 1923 song from the Broadway show Runnin' Wild, which was composed by James P. Johnson. The song, aptly named "The Charleston," became a runaway hit. The dance of the same name became an American favorite during the Roaring Twenties and is just as fun to try today.

Where Did The Charleston Originate?

The Charleston dance steps originated in the Black community and are believed to have Gullah roots. The dance was first performed in stage productions in Harlem before it became a hit on Broadway.

The 1920s were a time of widespread prosperity in the U.S., and the Charleston was a signature dance of the era. The moves that accompanied the tune were popularized by the choreographed Broadway dance number. The steps were designed for mass appeal, and they were adopted and adapted as they made their way through the dance halls and living rooms of the era. Unlike the waltzes of the past, this dance could be performed solo, with a partner, or in groups, making it a hit with younger generations.

How To Do The Charleston

The Charleston can be danced alone or with a partner, with the basic steps done in eight-count movements. It's easy enough to transport yourself to a 1920s speakeasy by learning how to dance the Charleston. Master just a few of these energetic moves, and you'll be searching for a dance floor (and an audience) in no time. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Begin with your palms parallel to the floor.
  2. Step forward with your left foot. Move your right foot forward, and tap it in front of your left.
  3. Step backward with your right foot. Then step backward with your left foot, and tap it behind your right.
  4. Repeat.

As you master the eight-count step, begin to move more freely with a bounce at every step. The Charleston was danced to 1920s jazz or ragtime music with a bouncy beat, after all. Finally, add in some Flapper moves, flapping the arms up and down with each step.

How To Jazz It Up

There are many variations to the Charleston, which tended to be free-form and open to improvisation, so kick up your heels and get wild with these styles:

  • Try a twist: Bend your knees, and balancing on the balls of your feet, move your heels in and out as you step forward and backward. This will get your knees moving in and out (or together and apart), a jazzy characteristic of the dance.
  • Add a kick: Instead of tapping the feet as you bring them forward and back, give a little kick. Throw in an occasional high kick if you're feeling exuberant.
  • Use arm variations: Swing your arms side to side in front of your body, or back and forth (one arm forward and one back, then swapping) as you move your feet.
  • Do the Bee's Knees: Crouch forward and place your hands on your knees with your knees pointing out. Pull your knees together and cross your hands on opposite knees. Open your knees with your arms crossed, then pull your knees together again and uncross your hands.

Once you start dancing the Charleston, you won't be able to stop. You can find step-by-step tutorials here and here.

How The Charleston Influenced Other Dances

In the 1930s and 40s, the Charleston began to meld with the Lindy Hop, a style of dance born in Harlem in the 1920s. This new Charleston was suited to the swing music of the 30s and 40s and is known as the Lindy Charleston or Swing Charleston. While the short, flapper-style dresses of the 1920s ensured enough range of movement for dancers to kick up their heels, the Charleston diminished in popularity as hemlines fell in the 30s. But you can still impress your friends by breaking out these moves at the next wedding reception or Jazz Age-themed party you attend.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles