We have a tendency to perceive long-since-passed pop culture crazes as “tame,” especially in our current, Miley Cyrus-infected times. The Charleston definitely falls victim to that misconception. Beyond the knee-cross, hand-switch move that has become short-hand for old fogies, most people don’t even know what the dance actually looks like. So I insist you watch this Josephine Baker number from the 1927 silent film, La Sirène des Tropiques, which features the dance in an amazing, grandiose routine. It may be her first film appearance (release dates for others are debated), but it is her first acting role.
Though Baker’s talent was never as celebrated in her home country as it was in France, she was beloved for far more than dancing topless in a banana tutu. The consummate entertainer, she could go from glamour-puss to comedienne, from a sweet smile to a smoldering gaze. Her acting was captivating, her singing voice sweet, and she remains, to this day, one of the most bombastic, athletic, and creative dancers ever to grace the stage.
Baker’s title card comes in at 1:50, but it’s worth watching the chorus line number that proceeds her, which provides a dramatic contrast to Baker’s fresh, new moves and unorthodox grace. Don’t get me wrong—I love a chorus line, but the great Josephine Baker blows them right out of the water.