The Hip-Hop Charleston

By Rachel Straus “Shucks!” Clark grunted. “Do you good to step out. You don’t have to dance—just get out there on the floor and shake.”—Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) Three years after F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this dialogue, the author immortalized America’s obsession with free spirit-ness in The Great Gatsby. Though Fitzgerald made no specific mention of the ultimate free-spirited trot—The Charleston—it was this dance that became synonymous with the “Roaring Twenties.” And it is the Charleston’s kinetic craziness that film director Baz Luhrmann channels in The Great Gatsby (2013). Actually John O’Connell, the film’s choreographer, creates a Charleston on Crack. It’s intravenously fueled with hip-hop and it looks as if it’s been injected into The Gatsby’s decadent partygoers, who riotously flail in the opening scenes. Thanks to Luhrmann’s team, the partygoers’ dancing and dress bear a greater resemblance to Kostume Kult, the underground New York party organization with roots in Burning Man, than a 1920s Long Island soiree. And that is Luhrmann’s point. He fashions a bad-ass party, an orgy of writhing bodies. Luhrmann isn’t interested in conjuring white folks in cream-colored gowns and black tuxedos, doing a watered down version of the famous 1920 dance—even though that would be closer to the historical truth. To see what I mean about Luhmann’s dancing scenes and costumes, check out this clip: The Great Gatsby In these party scenes, Lurhmann hardly focuses on the dancing (or the dialogue, or characters for that matter). He’s interested in making us blurry eyed, as though we are drunk on hooch. Lurhmann wants us to revel in, or be disturbed by, the decadence of this scene—just as 1920s folks reveled in or were disgusted by the Charleston, back in 1923 when the all-black Broadway revue Runnin’ Wild brought the dance to widespread attention. The traditional Charleston features “peekaboo, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t opening and closing of the legs,” writes dance historian Sally Sommer (International Encyclopedia of Dance). And like most American social dances, its true development stemmed from improvisations made by great dancers. To see what I mean, check out this clip of Al Minns and Leon James doing the Charleston. They transform the four-step dance into a symphony of limbs. They look like jazz musicians riffing on a melody: The Charleston It’s not said (or written about) enough how the great American vernacular dances, like the Charleston, originated with African-Americans dancers. They combined the rhythmically complex and looser-limbed style of West African dance traditions with European dances like the waltz, which privileged upright torsos and couple dancing. Unfortunately, during the 1920s and 30s, mostly white actors and dancers were filmed performing the vernacular dances created by African-Americans. As a consequence, the Charleston isn’t clearly associated with African-American dancing. Here, for example, is Ginger Rogers dancing the Black Bottom and the Charleston in her role as Roxie Hart in Chicago. She’s not bad: Ginger Rogers Last words: A good definition of the Charleston: The Charleston is a fast-paced and strongly syncopated American social dance that was especially popular in the 1920s. It took its name from Charleston in South Carolina, and was originally performed by African-Americans as a solo dance. By 1926 it was accepted as a ballroom dance. — The Oxford Dictionary of Dance (2010)

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