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The Inventor of Tap Dancing

Who invented Tap dancing? How is self-expression shaped and developed? When does the geographical proximity of different cultures influence art?

Williams Henry Lane was born free in Rhode Island in 1825. As a child, he moved to New York’s Five Points district–today, a section of the Financial District–where a lot of Irish and African Americans lived. The Five Points bustled with performance, drinking, gambling, and dance. It was a poor area, quickly becoming a “melting pot” as immigrant groups found their way to Lower Manhattan to live and work.

Lane was initially a performer in minstrel shows, a popular form of American entertainment between 1830 and 1890. In minstrel shows, white performers (usually Irish men) appeared in blackface, imitating hideous stereotypes of African-American speech, music, and dance. Usually the skits and jokes made fun of slaves, and only white people were allowed to perform.

But William Henry Lane was an exceptional talent and he was welcomed on to the stage in minstrel shows, so long as he wore blackface like the rest of the cast. So, he started appearing in shows: a black man with black paint on his face, an obvious standout and crowd-pleaser. Though audiences usually had no tolerance for non-white performers, Lane became an acclaimed dancer was soon able to play in minstrel shows without black makeup on his face. By 1845, he was the first black performer to be billed over a white performer in a minstrel show. His talent and courage made history.

In Africa, music was an essential form of personal and spiritual expression. Because enslaved people were not permitted to play music, they began to use their bodies as instruments, developing rhythms by drumming on themselves in syncopated dance. Lane combined the clapping, thumping, stomping, and slapping with the jig he learned from his Irish neighbors and the other dance steps that were gaining popularity around him in the 1820s and 30s. This unique style became known as tap dance.

Lane–billed “Master Juba” by Barnum’s Museum–added layers of rhythm, sounds, and poetry into his performances. Blending European folk dance and African dance, he used his feet to make a variety of drum sounds, and his voice to sing, speak, laugh, and improvise as he danced. He also played the banjo and the tambourine.

Master Juba performed every night, touring Europe and the northeast United States. He ate very little and worked constantly. He died in 1852 at the young age of 27, after opening a school in London.

Tap dance has since become a globally-recognized art form, and Master Juba’s legacy lives on. He is credited forthe invention of tap dance, but his legacy is about much more than that. To pursue his passion, he was forced to participate in the racist institution of minstrel shows. Once he gained success, he continued to wow audiences, spread himself thin in the face of failing health, and managed to open a school in London while he was still a young man. His ability to combine cultural influences, observe and absorb the art in his community, and turn it into a timeless form of self-expression, changed the course of history and shook the world of dance.