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Rapp on Jazz: The Charleston

If there is a signature dance of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it is the Charleston.

The moves made famous by flappers and strutters were born from the improvised dance steps of the Gullah people, descendants of enslaved West African peoples brought to the coastal lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina. The Gullah culture includes ring shout dances and call-and-response worship practices that survived slavery. (Along with the Charleston, Gullah dances heavily inspired another popular South Carolina jazz dance, The Big Apple.)

By the turn of the century, many Gullah peoples had moved to New York City to work on Atlantic shipping lines that docked there. That's where pianist and composer James P. Johnson first saw and heard the syncopated two-note motif that inspired his song, "The Charleston." This tune and the accompanying dance blew up in popularity after being featured in the 1923 Broadway show, "Running Wild."

This has been Rapp on Jazz, a co-production of the ColaJazz Foundation and SC Public Radio. Support for this program is made possible in part by Fox Music House of Columbia and Charleston.