z Great Performances: Free To Dance - Behind The Dance - From Minstrel Show To Concert Stage
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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

From Minstrel Show To Concert Stage
By Zita Allen
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Bert Williams
Bert Williams.
Until a young African-American performer named William Henry Lane donned rags, covered his brown face with burnt cork, and danced the foot-stomping, hand-clapping, thigh-patting ditty called "Juba," those portraying African Americans on the nation's stages were predominantly white. Credited with performing "authentic Negro dances," these men and women, with their blackened faces, popularized derogatory caricatures of the Negro while creating a uniquely American art form -- minstrelsy. As historian Jacqui Malone indicated in her book STEPPIN' ON THE BLUES: THE VISIBLE RHYTHMS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN DANCE, a free African American named William Henry Lane was the most important exception to this rule. Having perfected his skills in "the academy of the vernacular," young Lane, under the guidance of a well-known black jig and reel dancer, "Uncle" Jim Lowe, soon won several "challenge dances" against his white counterparts and was declared the "King of All Dancers."

Blackface minstrelsy was both a unique form of American entertainment and a reflection of the African-American image audiences had come to expect. It also embodied the classic tale of "They've taken my blues and gone," according to Langston Hughes in BLACK MAGIC, the book he coauthored with Milton Meltzer: "Hundreds of white minstrels performing in burnt cork borrowed not only the Southern Negro's songs but his dance steps, his jokes, and his simple way of speech as well -- which they distorted into what became known as 'Negro dialect.' White entertainers, North and South, literally made millions of dollars from Negro material. The Negroes themselves, barred from most theatres as spectators and segregated in others, could seldom see a minstrel show, and at that time they were not allowed to perform in them."

The appearance of Master Juba -- William Henry Lane -- was a sign that things were changing. In 1842, Charles Dickens, fresh from a trip to New York City's Five Points section, was clearly impressed by a dancer many historians believe was Lane, described in his book AMERICAN NOTES. "Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and crosscut: 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?"

One awestruck critic, marveling at Lane's ability to "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," decided this performance reflected the dance style of an entire people, which he labeled "Nigger Dance." In truth, Lane was an anomaly, the real McCoy in an art form built on distortion and caricature. Ironically, even he had to conform to a distorted image of who he was and how he was supposed to dance. Nonetheless, Lane, who died in London when he was only 27 years old, has been described as the "most influential single performer of nineteenth-century American dance." Not only did he found a school in London, where he lived after a brief tour with an all-white minstrel troupe, but he rekindled the white search "for inspiration among the Negro folk" as they sought to copy his complicated steps.

This did not diminish the impact of T. D. "Daddy" Rice, who donned blackface to perform his "Jim Crow" dance, and minstrel troupes, both predominantly white and occasionally African American, like the Virginia Minstrels, the Ethiopian Minstrels and others, were forced to follow in his footsteps until after the Civil War. When African-American performers came knocking on stage doors in significant numbers, hoping to win an opportunity to tread the boards -- 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 too had to follow Rice's example.

"By the time real Black minstrels began performing, in the 1860's, the stereotypes previously developed by the blackface performers were so set they could not be broken," observed dance historian Lynne Fauley Emery. Ironically, blacks had to advertise themselves as "real," or "bona fide Negroes." They also had to maintain other traditions. Although some performers in Lew Johnson's Plantation Minstrel Company were "quite dark," according to Hughes and Meltzer, "they followed the custom of white minstrel troupe performers and blackened their faces and circled their lips with red and white to make their mouths twice normal size." One minstrel performer, Billy Kersands, even exploited this physiological stereotype and became well known because he "could put a cup and saucer in his mouth." Kersands was also known for a dance, the "Virginia Essence," which sounds reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Moonwalk." According to one viewer, Kersands "moves forward without appearing to move his feet at all, by manipulating his toes and heels rapidly, so that his body is propelled without changing the position of his legs."

Enjoying its heyday in the racially turbulent Civil War era, minstrelsy was loaded with social and political messages. In the years prior to the Civil War, white performers dominated the field, presenting denigrating stereotypes of happy-go-lucky blacks. After the war, even as parts of the country struggled to come to grips with the concept of freed slaves, newly established African-American minstrel companies thrived while sticking largely to choreography, script, and costumes popularized by T. D. "Daddy" Rice's caricature.

According to cultural historian Margaret Butcher, "In the minstrel role, where at best the Negro was only half himself, at the worst a rough caricature, he was instantly popular and acceptable." Still, even as they toed the old chalk line, blacks were able to undermine the flat, one-dimensional image of themselves and the show's rigid, three-part format: an opening section dominated by an interlocutor and two end-men, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones; a middle Olio, and a final Afterpiece.

Photo: Courtesy of Joe Nash.

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