Act 1: A Cheeky Clique of Charlestoning Chicks

Photo by Matthew Olwell

If everybody Charlestoned off a bridge would you do it too?

Choreography by: Early 20th century jazz dancers at various clubs including the Savoy, as demonstrated by Al Minns and Leon James

Arranged by: Emily Oleson

Performed by: Emily Oleson, Catherine Marafino

Raha Behnam, Michele Chia, Chelsea Freeman, Ashley Haymaker, Connor Voss

Music performed by: Aimee Curl, Nate Leath, Lydia Martin, Joseph DeJarnette

Music composition:  “That’s Old Time” by Dwayne Brooke, Aimee Curl, Morgan Morrison


This piece is a product of listening to the fabulous music of The Woodshedders and The Wiyos.  I wanted to come up with some jazzy slapstick that just felt good to do to this music.  I just wanted a dance that was fun to execute, and that wasn’t laden with technical requirements . . . little did I know!  I started in 2006 along similar lines with a piece called Chasing Sister Kate to The Wiyos version of “Who Stole the Lock Off the Henhouse Door?,” and in that process, I started to discover a latent desire in myself to do the Charleston – who knew?  I began this Charleston(-esque? -inspired? -ripped off?) piece in 2009 with Meg Madden in Charlottesville, VA and began my You Tube research compiled into this  Charleston playlist  – for me, some videos are “what to do,” some videos are “what not to do.”  When Meg and I performed this at a Good Foot Dance Company Works-in-Progress showing at Live Arts in Charlottesville, VA, we originally included students of the Smiling Mountain Intensive, Marina Madden, Caroline Walsh, Aine Waller, and Mary Catherine Amarine.  I re-vamped this piece significantly for University of Maryland, basically re-choreographing the opening duet with the collaboration of Catherine Marafino, and relying much more heavily on more detailed research, see below.


While I originally thought of Charleston as just a fun recreational dance that I could riff on without falling into the Ruth St. Denis legacy of Modern dancers shopping for Other dance forms to either portrait or caricature for their own demographic, I soon realized that this was not going to be the case.  So I tried to make my dance about the ’20s, instead of ’20s-inspired postmodern dance.  And yet, I am a postmodernist, so I can’t get completely away from that.  I almost entirely self-taught via You Tube for my Charleston vocab – with the important exception of my friend Josephine Stewart, a great dancer who taught me (and/with/through my friend Meg) my first formal Charleston step.  Her studies in Swing and Lindy Hop FAR exceed my own, I hardly need to mention.  This step still exists in the piece, when Catherine and I do a front to back Charleston.

Other than that, it’s straight up watching Al Minns and Leon James videos for movement vocabulary, which I’ve arranged like I would arrange a dance that’s comprised of traditional Irish step dance steps which people treat as public domain – this raises really interesting questions for me about plaegerism and tradition . . . after a certain point, words become a language, and people who all speak the same language aren’t copying each other just because they aren’t inventing brand new original words for every situation.  After a certain point, movement coalesces into a “form” and people who work within that form repeat movement motifs indefinitely without charges of redundancy or plaegerism from their own.

I’m thinking here of Ballet’s pas de bourre as an example – who invented it?  Is it necessary to cite that person each time you use it?  Even if it would be nice to cite the original pas de bourre-er, that’s just not going to happen.  No point in getting all riled up about it, or staying away from it just because someone who happened to do three consecutive weight shifts named them a particular thing.  Those weight shifts existed long before the French language would be my guess.  However, Charleston is a little different, it’s just hard to say how different; it’s not as old or ubiquitous as the pass de bourre (the latter having been incorporated as a term into many other dance styles) and it has a history in which if any of the original African American practitioners wanted to copyright it they wouldn’t have been legally allowed to.

Groups like the Harlem Hot Shots, a company who are, according to their website, “a group of professional Swedish dancers whose specialty is entertainment authentic to the Swing Era” or my new friend Jeff Booth at the Jam Cellar in D.C., all of whom studied extensively with original members of this movement or people who were trained by original members of the Swing community, are the  real culture-bearers for this form, it seems to me, and there are many, many others who I don’t know.

There are also people who are clearly inspired by the You Tube “archive” like my new favorite dancer Forsythe, who is self-taught off of You Tube as well.  Should we be doing this?  I don’t know.  I am just recognizing the tip of the iceberg, and figuring out some of the politics and implications.   In the meantime, I wanted to trace my movements back to at least media sources, if I couldn’t do original sources for this project, and I feel like my research into this form is only just beginning in earnest.  I would love to keep finding out more and more about the roots of the Charleston and some of its earliest practitioners.  I would not call myself an “authentic” Charleston dancer, though I certainly love the steps!

For this piece, each dancer chose a “Flapper Mentor” – an historical figure who actually danced in the 1920s, to inspire our performance in various ways.  We are not playing these characters, but rather pretending that these artists might have acted as big sisters, coaches, mentors, if we were rising film or Vaudeville performers.  Mine is Louise Brooks, below.

When I think about Louise Brooks, I appreciate her unapologetic sexuality, to which I can relate – Ladies!  Your body (including your sexuality) is your own!  Not belonging to first one man and then another! – and the way she uses her eyes in movies like Pandora’s Box (1929) is so bewitching.  Her face is so dynamic and this makes her incredibly multi-dimentional even when she’s put into a “vamp” role where she’s basically a home-wrecker and a cautionary tale (won’t put any plot spoilers in here) – I recommend this movie;).

Catherine Marafino was inspired by the sunny, vivacious Marilyn Miller, a Broadway star in the 1920s who features in the movie Sally (1929).  Marilyn Monroe’s agent Ben Lyon is said to have picked out the first name “Marilyn” for her (her given name being Norma Jeane), because she reminded him of Marilyn Miller.  And we can easily trace that blond bombshell legacy to the present time . . . I like to think of Miller as Gaga’s great-great-grand-blond.

Raha Behnam chose Clara Bow, from the movie It (1927) (this picture is not from that movie) – who has a remarkable range rapid-fire emotions in this silent film, and a remarkable pout.

Michelle Chia picked Laura La Plante, who had an innocent, girlish persona, perhaps because she was from the mid-West.  It is worth noting here that as I was researching footage of all these film stars actually dancing so that the cast could study them, I was struck by the number of lost films there are from this era!  Quite sad.  But we did find Laura in The Cat and the Canary, which is a fascinating and formative piece of U.S. film history as one of the first “spooky haunted house” pictures.

Chelsea Freeman chose Josephine Baker, who she has loved since she was a little girl (Chelsea, not Josephine).  We watched Princess Tam Tam (1935) for inspiration.  Not only is Baker a great dancer, but she’s a superlative comedienne.  I really like Jazz Cleopatra, a biography of Baker by Phyllis Rose from 1997.

Ashley Haymaker chose Gilda Grey, who appeared in both the films A Virtuous Vamp (1919) and The Devil Dancer (1927).  That kind of says it all.  She was controversial.  She was credited with either naming or inventing The Shimmy (naming is possible, she definitely did not invent it).  We watched her in Piccadilly (1929), a movie that also features Anna Mae Wong.

Connor Voss chose Karyl Norman, a female impersonator in the Vaudeville era.  He used no padding and was known as “The Creole Fashion Plate.”

According to some of Voss’s research as of September 1, 2011:

“Apparently in the 1700s, the word “creole” merely implied that someone was born in the French or Spanish colonies, as was George Peduzzi’s Father Norman.  Exploiting his father’s colonial culture, George created the ethnically ambiguous and exploitative character of Karyl Norman using his father’s namesake.  Karyl played into a long-standing tradition in minstrel shows of female impersonation often using darker makeup to exaggerate the farce.  SEE…..EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.
Also the term “plate” could be compared to a clothing template from which garments are constructed. To be called a “fashion plate,” meant that one’s own handsewn creations were the latest trends, much in the same way the trope of “high fashion model” operates today: another exploitative gender performance, one that is completely ubiquitous in our contemporary american culture.  I could continue with the deconstruction but you get the point.”

It’s important to note that male/female impersonation was viewed differently in this period than drag is now.  In the early 20th c. it was widely acceptable family entertainment.  Some aspects of this discrepancy are discussed in Crossing the stage: controversies on cross-dressing by Lesley Ferris (1993), and her discussion of one of Norman’s contemporaries on p. 111 is fascinating, saying, “Audiences marveled at Julian Eltinge as they did at the likes of Harry Houdini: at the conjurer’s skill by which he transgressed nature’s barriers, went from man to woman, crossed what they saw as an unbridgeable divide.”  Interesting.

Another thread that led me into my work on this piece was reading Satan in the Dance Hall by Ralph G. Giordano.  I had subconsciously always associated “Flappers” with silliness, and in fact the older generation’s dismissal of flapper values (p 120, Giordano, 2008) was a big part of the original context and is probably the source for this impression of mine – however, I had never really looked at flappers as revolutionaries, nor examined how important the strides they made in the face of conservative opposition are to me to this day.  As Giordano explains, “At a time when American society was barely getting used to seeing an exposed female ankle, the exposed legs and arms was tantamount to complete nudity” (p 114).  I feel like this directly subverted the idea that women who wear revealing clothing are responsible for the actions of the men who see them, even if those actions are violent or criminal, not to mention just stupid or inappropriate. This playlist of movie scenes that were censored in the 1920s illuminates the kind of conditions under which Flappers were rebelling.  Check out the shocking shoe scene at 1:40 and the proto-Marilyn Monroe at 3:08.

Flappers were major trailblazers in the sexual revolution, following closely in time after Suffragettes, which I appreciated especially while I was in NYC at the American Woman exhibit at the MET’s Costume Institute last year.  The more revealing clothing obliterated the possibility of pretending that the female body didn’t exist, and hence the pretense that it was something about which to be deeply ashamed.  There is a part of this dance in which we execute a step called “Boogie to the Front” in which you unapologetically lead with the pelvis.  When I taught this to the cast, the words I used on the 4 count cadence was “I’m the New woman, I have a crotch” (I know there are better words, but it had to be mono-syllabic to go in the 4 beat structure).  To empower yourself is to allow yourself to make better choices, not to be reckless.

The free and fun loving, but not ignorant and arbitrary, mindset of Flappers was also covered in other articles we read including, “The ‘New Woman’, star personas, and cross-class romance films in 1920s America” by Stephen Sharot (2009) from the Journal of Gender Studies, which argued that while Flappers were sexually liberated to some extent, they still often wanted to be perceived as moral, “nice” and “marriageable,” and did not become apathetic or careless about courtship and family life.

The piece as a whole is also an homage to the fact that the Charleston was both a social dance and a stage dance during the Vaudeville era, bridging the sometime-disconnect between life and art.

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