This week’s threads have focused on minstrel performers and black actors who were successful being stereotypes and wearing blackface.
Today’s post will highlight the inventor or Father of tap dancing and the first black minstrel performer.
Master Juba (ca. 1825 – ca. 1852 or 1853) was an African-American dancer active in the 1840′s. He was one of the first black performers in the United States to play onstage for white audiences and the only one of the era to tour with a white minstrel group. His real name was believed to be William Henry Lane, and he was also known as “Boz’s Juba” following Dickens’s graphic description of him in American Notes.
As a teenager, he began his career in the rough saloons and dance halls of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, moving on to minstrel shows in the mid-1840′s. “Master Juba” frequently challenged and defeated the best white dancers, including the period favorite, John Diamond. At the height of his American career, Juba’s act featured a sequence in which he imitated a series of famous dancers of the day and closed by performing in his own style.
In 1848 “Boz’s Juba” traveled to London with the Ethiopian Serenaders, an otherwise white minstrel troupe. Boz’s Juba became a sensation in Britain for his dance style. He was a critical favorite and the most written about performer of the 1848 season. Nevertheless, an element of exploitation followed him through the British Isles, with writers treating him as an exhibit on display. Records next place Juba in both Britain and America in the early 1850s. His American critics were less kind, and Juba faded from the limelight. He died in 1852 or 1853, likely from overwork and malnutrition. He was largely forgotten by historians until a 1947 article by Marian Hannah Winter resurrected his story.
Existing documents offer confused accounts of Juba’s dancing style, but certain themes emerge: it was percussive, varied in tempo, lightning-fast at times, expressive, and unlike anything seen before. The dance likely incorporated both European folk steps, such as the Irish jig, and African-derived steps used byplantation slaves, such as the walkaround. Prior to Juba’s career, the dance of blackface performance was more faithful to black culture than its other aspects, but as blackfaced clowns and minstrels adopted elements of his style, Juba further enhanced this authenticity. By having an effect upon blackface performance, Juba was highly influential on the development of such American dance styles as tap, jazz, and step dancing.
In 1842, the great English novelist Charles Dickens toured the United States and wrote a book about it called American Notes. He described a visit to Almack’s, a dance hall in Manhattan’s notorious Five Points, and a dancer by the name of Master Juba:
“The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couple come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.”
Little is known about Juba’s life. Scant details appear in primary sources, and secondary sources—most dating to years after his death—are of dubious validity. Dance historian Marian Hannah Winter proposed that Juba was born to free parents in 1825 or later.Showman Michael B. Leavittwrote in 1912 that Juba came from Providence, Rhode Island, and theater historian T. Allston Brown gives his real name as William Henry Lane. According to an item in the August 11, 1895 edition of the New York Herald, Juba lived in New York’s Five Points District. This was a slum where Irish immigrants and free black people lived amidst brothels, dance houses, and saloons where black people regularly danced. The Irish and black populations intermingled and borrowed elements of folk culture from each other. One area of exchange was dance, and the Irish jig blended with black folk steps. In this environment, Juba learned to dance from his peers, including “Uncle” Jim Lowe, a black jig and reel dancer who performed in low-brow establishments. Juba was dancing for food and tossed coins by the early 1840′s. Winter speculated that by about age 15, Juba had no family.
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