Exploring and Exchanging Rhythms: Master Juba and the Early History of Tap Dance



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Exploring and Exchanging Rhythms:

Master Juba and the Early History of Tap Dance

Elisa Rebeca Trujillo

Senior Division

Individual Performance

Process Paper: 499 words


Though I have tap danced for six years, I knew very little about tap history when I chose my topic. This was part of my reason for choosing it. I felt I should know more about a subject so closely connected with my daily life. I did some initial research and was surprised to find that Irish dance and tap dance were so interconnected in their histories. I began Irish dancing three years ago alongside tap dance, but I never considered them historically connected. My project added an entirely new aspect to my dancing. I saw new connections between steps and truly began to appreciate the dance forms and what they meant to American history. It added another level to the complexity of the dances.

I first found multiple books at the University of Kansas Music and Dance Library. I checked out Tap Roots, which became one of my major sources for the project. It included hundreds of primary sources and images and gave a detailed analysis of tap dance history. This source helped lead me to other sources. It was written by a tap historian, Mark Knowles, whom I interviewed for my project. He answered my questions about the minstrel shows’ effects on tap and gave me many interesting facts to add to my performance. I also visited the KU Watson Library and found books that focused more on the social and political aspects of tap dancing, especially in minstrel shows. A primary source that was particularly helpful and fascinating was Charles Dickens's American Notes. In 1841, Charles Dickens travelled to New York City, where he watched a performance by Master Juba, a famous early tap dancer. The dance is described with detailed and beautiful language, and it helped me see what it would be like to witness some of the first tap dances.

I easily decided to make my project a performance. Tap dance is historically a performing art, and since I knew how to dance both Irish and tap, the choice was obvious. I felt I could bring tap’s rich history to life by dancing as the character of Master Juba. Tap is a complicated rhythm dance and is difficult to describe without showing it. After creating my performance, I met with the Chair of Kansas University’s Department of Dance, Dr. Michelle Heffner Hayes, who watched my performance and gave me feedback. We discussed racial issues in dance and the complexity of Master Juba’s situation in the minstrel shows.

Tap dance history relates to this year’s theme, Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange. Tap exists because of the cultural encounter of European immigrants and African slaves. These two peoples lived alongside each other for years and exchanged ideas and customs, including dance forms. Tap dance as we know it today is the result of the creativity of artists such as Master Juba, who explored new steps and possibilities of the dance. New forms continue to grow and expand, and every artist can bring something new to the dance.


Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources

Atkins, John. A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies. London: Ward and Chandler, 1737. Google Books. Google. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. This is a primary document that contained a scene describing what is considered one of the first recorded American observations of African slaves dancing. The scene is of a group of slaves doing a ring dance in the town square. It describes the atmosphere and the agility of the dancers. This source helped me see the persistence of the slaves, who continued to dance despite the oppression they experienced.

Barbot, Jean, and Claes Rålamb. A Description of the Coasts of North and South-Guinea, and of

the Ethiopia Inferior, Vulgarly Angola ... And a New Relation of the Province of Guiana,

and of the Great Rivers of Amazons and Oronoque in South-America. With an Appendix Being a General Account on the First Discoveries of America, in the Fourteenth Century, and Some Observations Thereon. And a Geographical, Political, and Natural History of the Antilles-Islands, in the North-Sea of America. London: n.p. 1732. Princeton Univ. Digital Library. Princeton Univ. Web. 29 May 2016. This source contained some early written accounts and descriptions of African dancing. The authors describe the low-to-the-ground dance style with enthusiastic clapping and stomping. It was helpful in understanding the style and atmosphere of African dances before they were merged with Irish dance forms to create the tap dance style. Through this source, I was able to see the specific elements that African dance brought to tap dance that are still recognizable today. This source also described the social aspect of African dance, which gave a sense of cultural identity that remained despite persecution.

Cake Walk. American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. 1903. Paper Print Collection, Lib. of Cong., 10 July 2009. YouTube video. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. I used this video clip of a vaudeville cakewalk to help me learn the dance for my own performance. The clip also shows the costuming and strutting character that would accompany the popular dance. This source helped me understand the persistence of the cakewalk, which began on the plantations and remained popular into the age of vaudeville in the early 1900s.

“Critic’s Note.” Bell's New Weekly Messenger 27 Aug. 1848. N. pag. Juba Project. University of Toronto. Web. 4 June 2016. This anonymous critic attempts to describe why Juba’s dancing is the best, calling his dancing “poetic,” as opposed to just entertaining. Because there are no videos of Juba’s dancing, it is praises and descriptions like these that best showed me what he was like. I used this source to understand the cause of Juba’s immense fame and success and the specific reasons why people loved his dancing.

“Critic’s Note.” Manchester Guardian 18 Oct. 1848. N. pag. Juba Project. University of Toronto. Web. 4 June 2016. An anonymous critic wrote this article reviewing Pell’s Ethiopian Minstrels, who Master Juba was performing with at the time. The critic highlights Master Juba’s talent especially, describing him in detail. He describes his movement, posture, stage presence, and personality. Because I was portraying Master Juba, this was helpful in creating his character. The critic describes his dancing as both grotesque and graceful at the same time, highlighting the uniqueness of Juba’s style. This source helped me present Master Juba as a realistic character and taught me about his never-before-seen dance style.

Dickens, Charles. “New York.” Pictures from Italy and American Notes for General Circulation. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1842. 284-384. Print. From this source I use a scene written by Charles Dickens during his travels in New York. Dickens describes Master Juba’s energetic dancing and personality and brings the scene to life. Dickens's description of Master Juba’s footwork helped me choreograph steps to imitate Master Juba’s dancing. His writing also helped me understand what it would have been like to witness such a dance, and I quote Dickens in my performance as Master Juba.

Drake, Richard. Revelations of a Slave Smuggler: Being the Autobiography of Captain Rich’d

Drake, An African Trader for Fifty Years-from 1807 to 1857; During Which Period He

Was Concerned in the Transportation of Half a Million Blacks from African Coasts to America. New York: Robert M. DeWitt, 1860. Wright American Fiction. Indiana Univ. Web. 30 May 2016. This book contained a passage in which the author, who served as captain on a slave ship, describes the slaves being forced to dance for “exercise.” He also describes them singing war songs and performing African ring dances. This source showed me what the gruesome first encounters of tap’s beginnings would have looked like, and it helped me describe them through the eyes of Master Juba’s ancestors.

The Ethiopian Serenaders. n.d. Lithograph clipping. American Minstrel Show Collection,

1823-1947. Harvard Theatre Collection. Harvard Univ. Web. 1 June 2016. I used this

portrait of the minstrel group that first hired Master Juba as a visual aid for the audience. It also showed me the instruments, costumes, and setting of the minstrel performances and gave me a better sense of Master Juba’s experience in the minstrel shows.

"Juba at Vauxhall." Illustrated London News. 5 Aug. 1848: 77. Gale. Web. 7 June 2016. This

was a newspaper article describing Master Juba’s time touring and dancing in London.

Critics described his energetic dancing, often writing with words of awe at his talent and the incredible footwork. The critics especially describe his dancing as beautiful to watch, rare praise for a minstrel performer. This article helped me understand Juba’s dance style and gave me the sense of what the audience felt when they saw his dancing.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. 163: Derby and Miller, 1853. Print. This primary

source was written by an African-American musician captured into slavery. There is a scene in which he describes the plantation dance called “Patting Juba.” He explains how to do the dance and gives an example of a song sung along with the dancing. This helped me understand how the dance was done in order to perform it.



T.D. Rice as “Jim Crow.” n.d. Print on paper. American Minstrel Show Collection, 1823-1947.

Harvard Theatre Collection. Harvard Univ. Web. 1 June 2016. This was a print of

Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s character of Jim Crow. I used this image in my set as a visual aid for the audience. It showed me what the first case of “negro imitation” looked like and the stereotyped caricatures that were used to deny slavery’s brutality in the minstrel shows.

Secondary Sources

Ambinder, Tyler. Five Points. New York: Free P, 2001. Print. This source tells the story of the slum where Master Juba became successful. It describes Charles Dickens’s reactions to Five Points and his fascinated observation of Master Juba. It also discusses Master Juba’s early career performing in local bars. It taught me that Five Points was full of dances from Ireland, England, and the slave plantations of the South. This source helped me understand the way Five Points served as a cultural meeting place and a birthplace for tap dance.

Cutcher, Jenai. “John Bubbles: The Soul of Rhythm Tap.” Dance Teacher 9 (2011): 76-7. ProQuest. Web. 28 Sep. 2015. This source is an article describing key moments in John Bubbles’s life. It taught me about his contributions to tap dance as another example of a black tap dancer who broke color barriers in his dancing. Bubbles created many famous steps and rhythms that are still taught today, so I mention him in my performance as an influential dancer who followed in the footsteps of Master Juba.

D’Auvergne, Edmund B. Human Livestock. London: Grayson and Grayson, 1933. Print. This book about slavery describes the “dancing of the slaves” that occurred on board the slave ships. Though it is a secondary source, the author describes the scene through the eyes of the captains. This scene gave me a better sense of the horrors that were the beginnings of tap dance, and I use a quote from it in my performance.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. “African American Dance and Music.” African American Jazz and Rap: Social and Philosophical Examinations of Black Expressive Behavior. Ed. James L. Conyers, Jr. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001. 117-30. Print. This essay discusses influential dances such as the cakewalk and Patting Juba. It led me to a primary source about early slave dances and went into depth on the importance of the cakewalk to tap history as a politically subversive dance. I use this information about the cakewalk in my performance to describe how dance was a means of hidden expression during slavery. 

Hayes, Michelle Heffner. Personal Interview. 1 June 2016. In preparation for National History Day, I met with the Chair of the Dance Department at Kansas University. She watched my performance, and afterwards we had a discussion. We discussed the complexity of the characters I portray, and how to portray Master Juba appropriately, being someone of a different race, gender, age, and time period. We also discussed the way dance is sometimes used to stereotype people, and how I should shape my vocabulary to respect cultural dances from around the world.

Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. This source

tells the story of tap from its very beginnings and all through to modern day. For my

project, I mainly focused on the beginning of the book, where the author discusses the cultural exchanges that occurred between Africans and Irish immigrants. It discusses multiple figures that influenced early tap dance and minstrelsy such as Thomas Dartmouth Rice and Master Juba. This source especially helped me understand the long lasting coincidental relationships between Africans and Irishmen working together and building railroads and canals in New York. 

Johnson, Stephen. “Gender Trumps Race?: Cross-Dressing Juba in Early Blackface Minstrelsy.” Ed. Jennifer Fisher and Anthony Shay. When Men Dance. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. This source analyzes the dancing of Master Juba with the Ethiopian Serenaders minstrel troupe. It includes detailed descriptions of what the performances would have looked like, describing the team and their successes. It also describes the association between Master Juba and Charles Dickens and how this affected his career. 

Knowles, Mark. Tap Roots. Jefferson: McFarland, 2002. Print. This was one of my major sources and was the basis for much of my further research. It includes hundreds of primary quotes and images that led me to new sources I used in my project. It contains collections of clippings and articles by Master Juba’s audience and critics. These gave me a better sense of Master Juba’s personality and presence to help me in my own performance. This source analyzes the cultural influences and roots of tap dancing and includes detailed descriptions of the plantation dances.

Knowles, Mark Alan. Personal interview. 3 Nov. 2015. I interviewed Mr. Knowles after checking out his book as one of my sources. He is a tap historian and teacher who answered my questions about the public’s reaction to tap, how minstrelsy affected tap, and how the cultural exchange of the European and African dances occurred. He was very helpful and gave me many interesting facts to include in my performance. 

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print. Race and American Culture. This source analyzes the relationship between the public and the minstrel shows. It discusses the minstrel shows’ contradictory representation of African dance and music. I used this source to learn about the complexity of minstrel shows and how this would have affected Master Juba.

“Master Juba.” World Heritage Encyclopedia. World Heritage, 2014. Web. 4 Feb. 2016. This page about Master Juba includes multiple primary drawings, portraits, and advertisements of Master Juba. I use these images on my backdrop for my performance as a visual aid to create the sense of the Five Points neighborhood. I also used a portrait of Master Juba in his suit after he gained respect in the dancing world.

Rizzuto, Rachel. “Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.” Dance Teacher 5 (2013): 56. ProQuest. Web. 28 Sep. 2015. Bill Bojangles was a tap dancer who explored new ideas for tap dance including dancing on the balls of his feet and a swinging rhythm. This source gave me a later example of a black tap dancer who overcame racial prejudices in the performing arts. I include his achievements in my performance as an example of how tap served as a gateway for black artists.

Scott, James C. "Voice under Domination: The Arts of Political Disguise." Domination and the



Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. Print. This source

discusses the ways people have resisted domination by using parody, song, and dance. This especially relates to my topic because slaves used dance to express beliefs and emotion that they were otherwise prohibited to express. This source deepened my understanding of cultural resistance under oppression and helped me understand the passion and identity behind resisting authority.

Seibert, Brian. What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. New York: Farrar, 2015. Print. This source is an incredibly in depth and recent analysis of tap dancing history. It includes a section on Master Juba, which was particularly helpful because it includes the dates of his major tours and performances. It also talks about his transition into being considered a respectable performer in England.

Strong, Stacie. “History, Herstory, OUR STORY.” Dance Spirit 12 (2007): 62-5. ProQuest. Web. 28 Sep. 2015. I used this source to help me understand what specific elements of tap dance came from European dance, such as clogging and step dancing, and which came from African dance, such as syncopation and improvisation.  This source also discusses the different stages of tap dance including vaudeville stars and later influential dancers.



Winter, Marian Hannah. “Juba and American Minstrelsy.” Chronicles of American Dance. Ed. Paul Magriel. New York: Henry Holt, 1948. 39-63. Print. This source helped me understand the transition to percussive and rhythmic dance of slaves after drums were forbidden and the transition of those dances on to the stage and minstrel shows. It contains several early drawings, cartoons, photographs, and advertisements that helped me understand the movement and costuming that would have accompanied the dances. The author was one of the first to analyze Master Juba’s dancing after his rediscovery, and she discusses his forgotten contribution to the world of dance.

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