The Evolution of Dance in 1920s America

The 1920s was a pivotal time in America’s cultural history. It was the era of flappers, jazz music, and massive social change.

This was reflected in the new, lively forms of dance that emerged and gained nationwide popularity during the “roaring twenties”.

Three major dances – the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, and the Black Bottom – originated in African American communities and encapsulated the energy and spirit of the Jazz Age.

Read on to learn about the distinct history and defining moves of these revolutionary dances that broke tradition and ushered in a new era of creative expression through movement.

1. The Charleston

History and Origins

Charleston exploded onto the dance scene in the early 1920s, but it originated in African American communities in Charleston, South Carolina as early as 1903.

Here, traditional African dance elements mixed with “patting juba” rhythms and European partner dances, coalescing into Charleston’s iconic kicking and swaying moves.

From these Southern roots, it spread like wildfire through travelling vaudeville acts and Broadway shows.

Signature Moves

The Charleston is danced solo, in pairs, or in groups. Its energetic style is defined by kicking the feet forward and pointing the toes, while swinging the arms out from the shoulders.

Knees are often bent inwards with legs crossing in front and behind.

The upper body is held backwards counterbalancing the leg kicks. Arm swings accentuate the off-beat rhythm.

Music and Popularity

This dance was tailored perfectly to the upbeat tempos and syncopated rhythms of 1920s jazz music.

As it appeared in popular Broadway shows and dance halls across America and Europe, the Charleston came to represent the flapper era, encapsulating themes of youthful rebellion and uninhibited self-expression.

It’s fun, freewheeling energy aligned with the “roaring” atmosphere of the Jazz Age.

2. The Lindy Hop

History and Origins

Emerging from 1920s Harlem ballrooms, the Lindy Hop was born in African American communities with influences from a mix of dances including tap, jazz, breakaway, and the Charleston.

Harmonious improvised partnering, syncopated rhythms, and the momentum of swing music defined Lindy Hop’s athletic style.

It gained fame through competitions at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

Partnering and Acrobatics

As the original swing dance, the Lindy Hop’s spontaneous choreography relies on close partnership between lead and follow.

Pairs seamlessly switch roles, responding to each other’s improvisations with skill and chemistry.

Choreographed moves involve kicks, drops, lifts, throws, and acrobatics that require strength, balance, and trust between partners.

Popularity and Legacy

The Lindy Hop reflected the integrated spirit of the Jazz Age, gaining widespread appeal through marathon dance competitions and Hollywood films.

As an iconic dance of the Swing Era, it brought together communities across racial lines through its fusion of African, European, and American dance traditions.

Its popularity endures today thanks to decades of revival and rediscovery.

3. The Black Bottom

History and Origins

The Black Bottom emerged in the mid-1920s out of African American jazz clubs and dance halls, later spreading through all dance venues popular among flappers.

The dance gets its name from the signature move of twisting or shaking one’s bottom.

However, it also incorporated kicks, shuffles, and percussive floor slaps.

Scandalous Moves

Marked by satirical and comical movements, the Black Bottom parodied polite “white” dance styles.

Exaggerated motions like shuffling feet, swaying hips, and wiggling bottoms provoked shock and scandal among critics.

But these provocative moves also challenged traditional social dance conventions, paving the way for future innovations.

Links to Jazz Age Culture

As a dance of youthful irreverence and tongue-in-cheek humour, the Black Bottom encapsulated the spirit of flapper culture and the Jazz Age.

Its animalistic rhythms and rule-breaking moves aligned with themes of liberation and creative expression flourishing in the 1920s.

Though eventually banned in more conservative venues, its fad popularity endures as a hallmark of its era.


The Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Black Bottom came to define the dance trends of the 1920s.

Originating in African American communities innovating with jazz rhythms, they popularised new forms of self-expression that rebelled against tradition.

These energetic and uninhibited dances resonated with flapper culture and the decade’s spirit of freedom.

Their unique styles, combining African roots and American influences, paved the way for dance forms like swing, hip hop, and contemporary jazz that continue to shape our culture today.


Q: Where did Charleston originate?
Charleston emerged in the early 1900s from African American communities in Charleston, South Carolina, who blended traditional African dance and rhythms with European partner dancing.

Q: What made the Lindy Hop unique?
The Lindy Hop was the original swing dance, featuring athletic partner moves, improvisation, and acrobatics that fused various dance styles like tap and jazz.

Q: How did the Black Bottom get its name?
The Black Bottom was named after the signature dance move of twisting or shaking one’s bottom in a provocative manner that parodied traditional ballroom styles.

Q: How did these dances gain nationwide popularity?
After originating in African American communities, these dances gained mainstream fame by being featured in Broadway shows, dance marathons, jazz clubs, and Hollywood films.

Q: What social changes did they reflect?
These dances reflected the new youthful spirit of the Jazz Age through uninhibited self-expression. Their origins in African American communities also contributed to integration and the breaking of racial barriers.

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