Master Juba, Said To Have Invented Tap Dancing

1 Posted by - September 17, 2023 - LATEST POSTS


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.”

The Juba Dance

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.

In 1845, Juba was the first black performer to get top billing over a white performer in a minstrel show. 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.

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.

Throughout his brief career, Juba worked both night and day and it began to take a toll on his health. For most of that time his diet consisted of little more than fried eels and ale. The poor diet, odd hours, and strenuous physical exertion finally caused a breakdown.

William Henry Lane died in 1852 at the tender age of 27. One commentator smugly opined, “Success proved too much for him. He married too late (and a white woman besides) and died early and miserably.” But the critics, promoters, theater owners, and his fellow performers mourned his passing, and his legacy was secure then as now. All tap dancers today acknowledge Master Juba as the creator of tap and celebrate his many contributions to modern dance.

Source: Master Juba — The inventor of tap dancing

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