Lower Manhattan’s Five Points slum, populated mainly by Irish immigrants and African Americans, was the city’s poorest, filthiest, most crime-ridden neighborhood in the 1840s.
Master Juba was his stage name. Born William Henry Lane in 1825 in Rhode Island, he came to Five Points in his teens and began competing against Irish-born dancers in saloons and dance halls, eventually moving on to minstrel shows and, later, touring Great Britain.
His style blended African steps with Irish jig moves. On his trip to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens saw Master Juba perform and was bowled over. Dickens had this to say in American Notes, his account of his trip:
“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?”
Above, an engraving of Master Juba dancing, from Dickens’ American Notes.
Master Juba is considered the father of tap, jazz, and step dancing. His death in 1852 at age 27 has been attributed to malnutrition and his physically strenuous schedule and style.
Tags: African dancing, American Notes, Boz Juba, Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens trip to New York City, Five Points, Master Juba, Minstrel Dancers 1840s, New York City 1840s, slave dancing, slums of New York City, step dancing