Master Juba

From Academic Kids

Master Juba was the stage name of William Henry Lane. He was born a free black man in Rhode Island in 1825, and began his career as a performer in the saloons and dance halls of the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan in or near 1840, moving on to minstrel shows throughout the decade. He played the banjo and the tambourine and could reproduce and elaborate upon the moves of all of the best dancers of his time.

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.

The English author Charles Dickens toured Five Points in 1842 and chanced upon a performance by Juba. First mentioning Juba as "a lively young negro", he wrote:

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 couples come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly...

...the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles. <p> 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!</i></blockquote> 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. He 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. The Juba Dance is attributed to him.


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