Tap Dancing (and more)

His name was believed to be William Lane, but he went by his stage name of Master Juba. He was thought to be born in Rhode Island around 1825 to free parents. As a young man, he lived in slums in New York that was the home to African Americans and Irish immigrants. There was a cultural blending of the two cultures, especially in dance.

Master Juba would dance for food in saloons. He also performed in dance competitions, minstrel shows, and variety shows featuring a number of acts. The name Juba was commonly used for slaves who were musically talented.

Master Juba became associated with P.T. Barnum, who had used a white dancer with blackface in a minstrel show. When the White dancer left, Master Juba was hired. Barnum arranged for dance competitions with Master Juba taking on prominent White dancers. Master Juba was the winner in most of these competitions.

Master Juba decided to move to England. It was on this tour that he began to develop his own dance style. His performances were very popular, but he was often viewed as an exhibit rather than as a performer.

The dance style that he developed was quite different than existing styles at the time. It was rapid and mesmerizing. It was more percussive than fluid. In many respects, it was a merger of an Irish jig and dance styles found on plantations. It was quite distinctive from the elegant mannered dances of the elite in England.

What Master Joba did was to become the catalyst for tap dancing and later step dancing. Much of the dancing that young people enjoy today has its roots in the dance style that Master Juba originated.

The term Juba dancing became a part of dance history, but the man behind the name was largely forgotten. Nearly 100 years after his death, historians began to capture his story and his influence on dance.

Like much of his life, Master Juba’s death remains a mystery. His death is believed to have occurred somewhere in the time period from 1851-1854. Whatever the year was, it’s fairly certain that he died before he was 30. The apparent cause of his death varies from cholera to a compound factor of complete exhaustion, poor food, and lack of sleep. We don’t even know the location of his grave.

While we don’t know much about Master Juba, his influence remains with us today. He transformed dance from an activity of the elites to one of enjoyment for all.

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“Listen to my feet and I will tell you the story of my life.” – John Bubbles (Rhythm Tap Dancer)

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