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Stepping Out

If you're partying this holiday week and get to dancing, don't forget the steps that made our Holy City famous. The Charleston took the country by storm in the early years of the last century, and like everything to do with such a history-rich city, it comes with a story.

The dance, with its rhythmic stomping, kicking and clapping, is thought to have been derived from traditional African-American dances, particularly one called the "Juba", brought to Charleston by enslaved Africans and passed down through the generations until it had become a kind of neighborhood challenge dance in the city's African-American communities. The tradition moved north during the Great Migration of African-Americans during and just after World War One.

James P. Johnson, composer of "The Charleston"

But it wasn't until 1923 that what we know as The Charleston came to larger audiences with the debut of a Broadway musical called Running' Wild , which included a song called The Charleston written by an African-American composer named James Johnson. Born and raised in New Jersey, Johnson claimed he'd been inspired to write music to fit the dancing he saw by Charleston-born longshoremen who frequented a Harlem nightclub where he was the pianist.

And there may be yet another link to Charleston. The city's Jenkins Institute For Children, an orphanage for mostly African-American children established in 1891, became famous for its Jenkins Orphanage Band, which incorporated dance into their performances. The band toured widely to raise money for the orphanage (which still exists, in North Charleston, as the Jenkins Institute), and James Johnson may very well have seen much the same energetic routine.

The Charleston may have begun as a dance craze, but it's still around today and has influenced other popular dance forms from swing dances to the Mashed Potato. So kick up those heels and stir up another part of Charleston's, and America's, cultural legacy.

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