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William Henry Lane (1825?-1852)

By Constance Valis Hill

William Henry Lane, an African-American dancer known as “Master Juba,” is believed to have been born a free man, although neither his place of birth nor the names of his parents are known. He grew up in lower Manhattan in New York City, where he learned to dance from “Uncle” Jim Lowe, an African-American jig-and-reel dancer of exceptional skill. By the age of fifteen, Lane was performing in notorious “dance houses” and dance establishments in the Five-Points district of lower Manhattan. Located at the intersection of Cross, Anthony, Little Water, Orange, and Mulberry streets, its thoroughfare was lined with brothels and saloons occupied largely by free blacks and indigent Irish immigrants. Lane lived and worked in the Five-Points district in the early 1840s. In such surroundings, the blending of African-American vernacular dance with the Irish jig was inevitable. Marshall Stearns, in Jazz Dance, confirms that “Lane was a dancer of ‘jigs’ at a time when the word was adding to its original meaning, an Irish folk dance, and being used to describe the general style of Negro dancing.”(Jazz Dance, 45) Charles Dickens, in his American Notes (1842), describes a visit to the Five-Points district in which he witnessed a performance by a dancer who was probably Lane: “Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross cut; snapping 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 wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs.” (American Notes, 218)

In 1844, after beating the reigning white Irish minstrel dancer, John Diamond, in a series of challenge dances, Lane was hailed as the “King of All Dancers” and named “Master Juba,” after the African juba or gioube, a step-dance resembling a jig with elaborate variations. The name was often given to slaves who were dancers and musicians. Lane was thereafter adopted by an entire corps of white minstrel players who unreservedly acknowledged his talents. On a tour in New England with the Georgia Champion Minstrels, Lane was billed as “The Wonder of the World Juba, Acknowledged to be the Greatest Dancer in the World!” He was praised for his execution of steps, unsurpassed in grace and endurance, and popular for his skillful imitations of well-known minstrel dancers and their specialty steps. He also performed his own specialty steps, which no one could copy, and he was a first-rate singer and a tambourine virtuoso.

In 1845, Lane had the unprecedented distinction of touring with the four-member, all-white Ethiopian Minstrels, with whom he received top billing. At the same time, he prospered as a solo variety performer, and from 1846 to 1848 was a regular attraction at White’s Melodeon in New York. Lane traveled to London with Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders in 1848, enthralling the English, who were discerning judges of traditional jigs and clogs, with “the manner in which he beat time with his feet, and the extraordinary command he possessed over them.” Advertisements in London’s Theatrical Times (1848) wrote that Master Juba was “far above the common [performers] who give imitations of American and Negro character; there is an ideality in what he does that makes his efforts at once grotesque and poetical, without losing sight of the reality of representation.” (cited in Stearns, Jazz Dance, 46) Working day and night and living on a poor diet and no rest, Lane died of exhaustion in London.

In England, Lane popularized American minstrel dancing, influencing English clowns who added jumps, splits, and cabrioles to their entrees and began using blackface makeup. Between 1860 and 1865, the Juba character was taken to France by touring British circuses and later became a fixture in French and Belgian cirques et carousels. The image of the blackface clown, which persisted in European circuses and fairs, continued to be represented in turn-of-the-century popular entertainments as well as on concert stages during the 1920s, in ballets such as Léonide Massine’s Crescendo, Bronislava Nijinska’s Jazz, and George Balanchine’s character of “Snowball” in The Triumph of Neptune (1926).

In the United States, Lane is considered by scholars of dance and historians of minstrelsy to be the most influential single performer in nineteenth-century American dance. He kept the minstrel show in touch with its African-American source material at a time when the stage was dominated by white performers offering theatrical derivatives and grotesque exaggerations of the African-American performer. He established a performing style and developed a technique of tap dancing that would be widely imitated. For example, the white dancer Richard M. Carroll was noted for dancing in the style of Lane and earned a reputation for being a great all-around performer; other dancers, like Ralph Keeler, who starred in a riverboat company before the Civil War, learned to dance by practicing the complicated shuffle of Juba. Toward the end of the twentieth century, Lane’s legacy continued to be present in elements of tap dance repertory. Lane’s grafting of African rhythms and loose body styling onto the exacting techniques of British jig and clog dancing created a new rhythmic blend of percussive dance that was the earliest form of American tap dance.


Constance Valis Hill has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University; M.A. in Dance Research and Reconstruction from City College of the University of New York; Bronze Certificate from the International Society of Ballroom Dance; Neutral and a Character Mask certificate from Pierre LeFevre at the Juilliard School. She has worked internationally as a teacher, choreographer, director, and mask specialist, including collaborations with the French playwright Eugene Ionesco; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda; Romanian director Liviu Ciulei; and Toni Morrison on her play Dreaming Emmett. Her writings have appeared in numerous dance periodicals and edited anthologies. Her book, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award; and hermost recent book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010), for which shereceived the Tap Preservation Award from the American Tap Dance Foundation, wassupported by grants from the John D. Rockefeller and John Simon Guggenheimfoundations. As a Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College, sheteaches courses in dance history, performance theory, jazz studies,choreography on camera, and feminist performance; and is working with hercolleagues to establish a black studies core curriculum.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation (1842).

Emery, Lynn Fauley. “Jim Crow and Juba,” in Black Dance From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988.

Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Winter, Marian Hannah. “Juba and American Minstrelsy,” Chronicles of the American Dance, ed. Paul Magriel, 1948.