Lane, William Henry
William Henry Lane
William Henry Lane is "probably the first famous figure in tap dancing," according to Smithsonian magazine. Also known as "Master Juba," he got his stage name from a word that signified a rhythmic dance that came over to America with Africans on slave ships. According to the Smithsonian, in the 1840s theater hand-bills proclaimed Lane as "The Wonder of the World, Juba … the King of All Dancers" and declared, "No conception can be formed of the variety of beautiful and intricate steps exhibited by him with ease."
In his 1842 book American Notes English novelist Charles Dickens describes a dancer many believe to be Lane. "Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and crosscut," Dickens wrote, "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 … 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?" Until Lane came along, a free black in the time of slavery, whites portrayed African Americans on stage. Their act was called minstrelsy—these white dancers performed "authentic Negro dances," smudging their faces black with burnt cork, and entertaining crowds with their mocking, denigrating portrayal of African Americans as goofy caricatures. Lane is credited with being the first black to darken his own face with burnt cork and perform in the American minstrel shows.
Lane was born a free black in 1825 in Providence, Rhode Island. He spent his teenage years in the Five Points area of New York City. It is said that Lane learned to dance as a teen from a well-known black saloon dancer, "Uncle" Jim Lowe. Lowe, best known for his jigs and reels, initially encouraged Lane to become a "Buck and Wing" dancer. The phrase came from "buck," a term used by whites for African American males, and "wing," a nineteenth-century minstrel dance routine. Before long, Lane developed his own style, won several challenge dances, dancing an Irish jig against white competitors. Twice he beat the best white dancer in Five Points, an Irishman named John Diamond who was famous for jig dancing. Lane was declared the best.
Minstrel Shows Aped Blacks
White minstrelsy became popular during the Civil War era, and audiences enjoyed the shows, depicting African Americans as acrobatic, dancing clowns. After the war, blacks had to step into the roles created for them by whites if they wanted to find work on the stage. As African American minstrel troupes began to form—Sam Lucas, the Georgia Minstrels, Lew Johnson's Plantation Minstrel Company, Haverly's Mastodon Genuine Coloured Minstrels, the Great Nonpareil Coloured Troupe, James Bland, W. C. Handy, and others—they had to perform the Jim Crow dance if they wanted to please audiences and fill theater seats.
To compete with established white minstrels, blacks had to advertise themselves as real, or bona fide Negroes. Also, though many black performers were already dark-skinned, they blackened their faces and painted clownish lips on their faces with red and white, making their mouths twice normal size, because that was what audiences were used to.
Lane's style was unique, and one awestruck critic declared that his performance reflected the dance style of an entire people. Even though his talents set him apart from both black and white minstrels, Lane still had to conform to the derogatory minstrel act if he was to work. Nonetheless, Lane has been described as the "most influential single performer of nineteenth-century American dance," according to PBS Television.
Becomes Master of Dance
The dance Lane became famous for, the Juba, has a rich tradition. West Africans on slave ships danced for exercise, on occasion, to the hornpipe, banjo, or fiddle, unfamiliar instruments played in an unfamiliar march-time beat by members of the ships' Europeans crews. As the ships pitched and lurched, the Africans did a foot stomp. Rhythmic clapping sometimes went along with the steps. This tradition was known as patting Juba. Settled on American plantations in the South, the Africans kept dancing and became adept at copying Irish jigs, quadrilles, Virginia reels, and Lancashire clogging. They were even called into their masters' homes to entertain white guests. On their own, the transplanted people of Dahomey, Congo, and Senegal were more apt to dance giouba, described as "an African step-dance which somewhat resembled a jig with elaborate variations, [which] occurred wherever the Negro settled," according to the Smithsonian.
By 1845, Lane was making his name with his version of the Juba. Lane's style focused on rhythm and percussion over melody and built heavily on improvisation. He may have been the first to add syncopation to his dancing.
- Born in Providence, Rhode Island
- Charles Dickens' American Notes is published, and includes a dancer thought to be Lane
- Becomes first black dancer to earn top billing in white minstrel troupe
- Dances for Queen Victoria on a United Kingdom tour; establishes dance school in London
- Dies in England
In 1846, Lane became the only black dancer of his time to receive top billing in an otherwise all white minstrel company who, in blackface, called themselves the Ethiopian Minstrels. He toured with the group through the United States and the United Kingdom, where he was very popular. In 1848 he danced at Vauxhall Gardens and before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
Lane's popularity in England led him to found a school in London, where he lived after touring there. According to PBS Television, he inspired in whites a desire to search "for inspiration among the Negro folk "as they sought to copy his complicated steps. Details of Lane's death are somewhat obscure, but he is thought to have died young, at the age of twenty-seven somewhere in England.
Santiago, Chiori. "Ziggedy bop! Tap dance is back on its feet." Smithsonian, May 1997.
"Great Performances: Free to Dance—Behind the Dance—From Minstrel Show to Concert Stage." PBS Television. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/behind/behind_minstrel.htm (Accessed 23 March 2005).
"Juba—William Henry Lane." The Vauxhall Society. http://www.vauxhallsociety.org.uk/Juba.html (Accessed 23 March 2005).
"William Henry 'Juba' Lane." Dancer History Archives. http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2juba1.htm (Accessed 23 March 2005).