A Fresh Perspective

Charleston

Charleston is simple in theory, yet frustratingly difficult to learn. Of course, this is coming from someone who took months to get the steps exactly right. It seemed so complex at first, but it’s literally just...walking. Remember that time you got out of bed to make a bowl of cereal? You did the Charleston on the way to the kitchen. Now just do that in place for eight counts, and you’ve got it. Though, it may get more complicated when going deeper into the style. In light of this topic, I’m going to leave you with a story of a recent experience I had with the Charleston.    

Sunday Swing

As the band banged their drums and blew their whistles, the thump-thump of a traditional jazz beat kept its time. The joining musicians pursued the rhythm, weaving their sounds in and out of its grooves. It made for a compelling tune. Not far off, a friend of mine found his way into the grooves as well. In a sea of partnered dancers, he held his space in the middle of floor busting solo Charleston moves. Every joint in his body stretched in perfect time for the movements to flow as nicely as they did. Then, he did something that caught my eye. A leg here or there would turn in a peculiar way until it didn’t look like the Charleston at all, but did. This started a string of variations that struck my curiosity.

When the song was over, I asked him about it, the steps and what he was doing with them. “You already know the steps,” he said, “Now, it’s about trying to mess with them and see what you can do while getting to the backstep on time.” It made sense. Another song started, and he did some basic Charleston moves while I followed alongside. One of the first moves I caught onto was a double-kick. Instead of kicking back on the count of seven, we’d kick forward again as we did on five, making me rush to get my foot back for one. Some were hard to get the hang of. We did this move where we stepped forward on five and pivoted to a one-eighty on seven, facing the opposite direction by the time we started again on one.

Photo by Ashley McKibben

Pretty soon, we were just having fun with it, and I didn’t care too much about where I was when the one came back around. That’s when a third person joined in, kicking through with steps neither of us had seen before. We were forming a circle of solo dancers, each doing our own interpretation of the same steps. As we clapped to keep the beat for one another, a fourth man jumped in. Now, still in the middle of partnered dancers, we formed a square, kicking across from each other; switching sides when the music called for a change, as it often did.

With sweat dripping from my skin and an ache in my body halfway through the song, I had to break. But there was no way I could walk off now. Something was coming and we could feel it. Whether it was through the anticipation of the music, a suspended chord, a lagging horn, the musicians were leading some sort of crescendo and trying, discreetly, to let us in on it. There was a moment coming, and it needed only to be felt. A melodic chorus from the band finished by putting a punctuation mark on its question. The southern drawl of a trombone jumped in to answer, all while a set of drums proved itself a mediator. At this point, the three of us were standing in a circle around the fourth, still kicking, still sweating, still aching, and still smiling all the way through. Then one of us would break in, forcing the other back into the outside barrier.  

Photo by Ashley McKibben

As this was happening, the trombone’s plea was interrupted by an aggressive trumpet with a punch packed like a schoolyard lunch. We felt this, and matched it as best we could. In the middle of the circle, her legs moving like a grasshopper in a hurry, was an embodiment of the cries we were hearing from the stage. They flowed together as one, it seemed. The trumpet spoke what she couldn’t as the dancer lifted her limbs to its voice. They were two separate forms of the same conversation.

Now, there was a shift in tone and the trumpet started to sound like it had said everything it needed to. It wrapped up the speech with a high note suspended as the others came back in full force with the melodic chorus. As if practiced, we abandoned our circle and formed our own chorus, facing each other in a square as we had in the beginning. And now we were the ones answering boldly what had been asked, like the trumpet with its potent declaration. Our kicks in sync like some jazzy line dance, each of us provided a touch of innovation to the picture we held as a whole. The song was coming to a close. As the last notes rang in unison we let out the wildest motions our muscles could carry. Then the ringing of the big brass band was met with silence, as the silence was met with applause. We doubled over and exhaled and clapped and smiled and wiped the sweat from our faces, thanking each other for the dance, and dispersing into the crowd.