The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 1

Dance Beat

Master Juba and the
African Roots of American Step Dance

By Peter Szego

Our understanding of the African roots of American vernacular rhythm dance—buck dancing, flat footing, and tap dance—is complicated by the extraordinary popularity of blackface minstrelsy through much of the 19th century. From its inception around 1830, minstrelsy consisted almost entirely of blacked-up white entertainers who represented their highly caricatured performances as authentic “delineations” of the music

and dance of enslaved Africans on southern plantations. It wouldn’t be until well after the Civil War that African Americans performed in large enough numbers to provide opportunities to view actual black music and dance on the minstrel stage. Today, it remains a challenge to determine what elements of minstrel performance actually represented African music and dance, and how these would in turn influence American vernacular music and dance.

It’s no exaggeration to state that blackface minstrelsy’s popularity exploded because of a singular stage act. In 1828 the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice blacked up, put on tattered clothes, and introduced his song and dance routine, “Jump Jim Crow.” It became an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic, thereby becoming America’s first mass market entertainment—and our first mass entertainment export.

Rice related how he learned a “ludicrous” song and dance from a local black man and instantly transformed it into a popular theatrical performance. This self-aggrandizing claim of authenticity, based on learning directly from blacks, was to become a common theme in minstrelsy.

According to one of several contemporary accounts, “Back of the theatre was a livery stable kept by a man named Jim Crow . . . He was very much deformed, the right shoulder being drawn high up, the left leg stiff and crooked at the knee, giving him a painful, at the same time laughable limp. He used to croon a queer old tune with words of his own, and at the end of each verse would give a little jump, and when he came down he set his ‘heel a-rockin!’ He called it ‘jumping Jim Crow.’

“Rice watched him closely, and saw that here was a character unknown to the stage. He wrote several verses, changed the air somewhat, quickened it a good deal, made up exactly like [Crow], and sang it to a Louisville audience. They were wild with delight, and on the first night he was recalled twenty times.”

Rice’s performance of Jump Jim Crow “eventually turned him into the highest paid minstrel performer around” and, by 1838, the Boston Post reported that, “the two most popular characters in the world at the present time are [Queen] Victoria and Jim Crow.”

Assuming that the description of the stable hand is accurate, the very characteristics that are described as “deformed” and “laughable” are probably the most African elements of Crow’s dance: his nonchalance, the bent knees, swaying hips, loose arm and shoulder movements, and the basic asymmetry of the dance. In his definitive book, Jazz Dance, Marshall Stearns observes, “Jump Jim Crow resembles Trucking, the Thirties dance . . . shuffling forward while the index finger of one hand wiggles shoulder-high in the sky. The dance probably consisted of flat-footed shuffles, mixed with the Irish jig, over-exaggerated upper body movements, pirouettes and a syncopated hop and jump at the finish of each chorus . . . It [is] clear that the dance, not the melody, made Jump Jim Crow a national craze.”

Over the next decade, blacked-up entertainers continued to perform between the acts in venues ranging from theatrical productions to circuses throughout America. On February 17, 1843, four blackface performers presented the first complete, evening-long minstrel performance in New York City. As The Virginia Minstrels, the four claimed to delineate, “the Sports and Pastimes of the Virginia Colored Race, through the medium of Songs, Refrain and Ditties, as sung by the Southern Slaves, at all their Merry Meetings, such as the gatherings in the Cotton and Sugar Crops, Corn Huskings, Slave Weddings and Junkets.” White performers would continue to appropriate and blur the identity of African-American music and dance in blacked-up performances well into the twentieth century.

Within this all-white theatrical world there was a singular exception to the total absence of black performers: the brilliant and innovative African American dancer, William Henry Lane, or Master Juba. And it is a fortuitous coincidence that one of the greatest chroniclers of his day, Charles Dickens, nicknamed Boz, would cross paths with Master Juba.

William Henry Lane, born a free black around 1825 in Providence, Rhode Island, had already attracted attention with his dancing by the age of 10. Marion Winters writes that Lane “learned much of his art from ‘Uncle’ Jim Lowe, a Negro jig and reel dancer of exceptional skill, whose performances were confined to saloons, dance halls, and similar locales outside the regular theaters.” He would soon adopt the stage name, Master Juba, and would be dancing for his supper of fried eels and ale in New York City.

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