Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston Pictured: Josephine Baker performing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergere in Paris, 1926. Wildly popular in Europe, Baker was one of the artists who made the Charleston the iconic image of jazz-age America around the world. (Photograph by Stanislaus Julian Walery.)


Americans first saw the Charleston at New York's Colonial Theater in the black musical Runnin' Wild (1923) and embraced the dance as a declaration of female emancipation, the victorious outcome of World War I, and embodiment of an image of "no restraints," which typified the roaring decade. Empowered by ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, new women voters discarded bustles and long skirts, sported dropped waistlines and bobbed hair, and exuded reckless flirtatious energy in the high kicks and arm swings of the Charleston. Developed as early as 1903 on an offshore Carolina island, the Charleston was a couple dance that allowed separate exhibitions, featuring a crouched position for the interlacing of knees and hands in contrast to the upswing of ankles and wrists. Jazz-based music played by white musicians provided the syncopated 4/4 rhythmical beat for flappers, who also executed a line dance version. Opposition to the quintessential jazz-age form came from many quarters, especially Henry Ford, who promoted old fashioned Northeastern square dance as antidote to the lost generation's spirit of heedless abandon.

Learn more in The Charleston, an essay by Dawn Lille.