Posted on 02/18/2009

Photo taken on March  3, 2009

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African American
William Henry Lane
Master Juba
Boz Juba
Juba and Jude are common slave names that were often adopted

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The Inventor of Tap

The Inventor of Tap
William Henry Lane aka Master Juba:

[b.1825 - d.1853]

Master Juba’s real name was William Henry Lane. He was born a free black man in Rhode Island in 1825, and began his career as a performer in minstrel shows. He played the banjo and the tambourine and could imitate the moves of all of the best dancers of his time. Later he created his own innovations and danced his way to international fame.

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."

"Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs - all sorts of legs and no legs - what is this to him?"

"And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!"

Minstrel shows began in the US in the 1830s, when working class white men (usually Irish) blackened their faces with burnt cork and dressed up as plantation slaves while imitating black music and dance and speaking in a "plantation" dialect. The shows featured a variety of jokes, songs, dances and skits that were based on the ugliest stereotypes of African American slaves. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America and they only died out completely in the 1950s with the advance of civil rights.

Only white actors were allowed to perform in minstrel shows till the 1840s, when Lane began performing minstrel acts, but even he was required to wear blackface makeup. It seems absurd now to think of a black man being forced to wear makeup so he can look like a white man made up to look black, but that was the only way he was allowed to perform. Eventually he became so popular that he was no longer required to wear blackface.

Most American slaves came from cultures in Africa that had relied on drumming as a means of communication and personal expression. Slaves were not allowed to play drums, so they began to use their bodies as instruments. Over time, the hand clapping, foot stomping, body thumping and thigh slapping evolved into a dance called "patting juba."

Lane combined patting juba with the jig and reel dances that he had learned from his poor Irish neighbors, and added many other ethnic dance steps he had learned, such as the shuffle, the slide, buckdancing, pigeon wing, and clog into a new dance that became known as tap dancing. As his reputation grew, the promoters began to call him Master Juba; the "Dancinest fellow ever was" and he was proclaimed the greatest dancer of all time by American and European writers alike.

Master Juba competed in many dance contests and defeated all comers including an Irishman named Jack Diamond, who was considered the best white dancer. Juba and Diamond were then matched against each other in a series of staged tap dance competitions throughout the United States. In 1845, Juba was the first black performer to get top billing over a white performer in a minstrel show.

Juba went on to give command performances before the crowned heads of Europe. The Illustrated London News asked, "How could he tie his legs into such knots and fling them about so recklessly, or make his feet twinkle until you lose sight of them altogether in his energy?" Juba eventually settled in London where he performed with an English dance company and opened his own dance studio. William Henry Lane died in 1852 at the age of 27, but all tap dancers today acknowledge him as the creator of tap and celebrate his many contributions to modern dance.


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