Early Life and Career
Little is known about Juba's life. Scant details appear in primary sources, and secondary sources—most dating to years after his death—are of dubious validity. Dance historian Marian Hannah Winter proposed that Juba was born to free parents in 1825 or later. Showman Michael B. Leavitt wrote in 1912 that Juba came from Providence, Rhode Island, and theater historian T. Allston Brown gives his real name as William Henry Lane. According to an August 11, 1895, item in the New York Herald, Juba lived in New York's Five Points District. This was a slum where Irish immigrants and free black people lived amidst brothels, dance houses, and saloons where black people regularly danced. The Irish and black populations intermingled and borrowed elements of folk culture from each other. One area of exchange was dance, and the Irish jig blended with black folk steps. In this environment, Juba learned to dance from his peers, including "Uncle" Jim Lowe, a black jig and reel dancer who performed in low-brow establishments. Juba was dancing for food and tossed coins by the early 1840s. Winter speculated that by about age 15, Juba had no family.
Primary sources show that Juba performed in dance competitions, minstrel shows, and variety theaters in the Northeastern United States beginning in the mid-1840s. The stage name Juba probably derives from the juba dance, itself named for the central or west African term giouba. "Jube" and "Juba" were common names for slaves in this period, especially those rumored to have dancing or musical talent. Documentation is confusing, as there were at least two black dancers using the name Juba at this time. For example, in 1840 a man named Lewis Davis was using the name "Master Juber" and making his living "travelling through the states, dancing negro extravaganzas, breakdowns, &c". He was arrested for theft in New York City.
An anonymous letter from 1841 or early 1842 in the tabloid newspaper the Sunday Flash states that Juba was working for showman P. T. Barnum. The writer stated that Barnum had managed the dancer since 1840, when he had disguised the boy as a white minstrel performer—by making him up in blackface—and put him on at the New York Vauxhall Gardens. In 1841, the letter alleges, Barnum went so far as to present his charge as the Irish-American performer John Diamond, the most celebrated dancer of the day. The letter further accuses Barnum of entering Juba-as-Diamond in rigged dance competitions against other performers:
The boy is fifteen or sixteen years of age; his name is "Juba;" and to do him justice, he is a very fair dancer. He is of harmless and inoffensive disposition, and is not, I sincerely believe, aware of the meanness and audacity of the swindler to which he is presently a party. As to the wagers which the bills daily blazon forth, they are like the rest of his business—all a cheat. Not one dollar is ever bet or staked, and the pretended judges who aid in the farce, are mere blowers.
Writer Thomas Low Nichols supported parts of the story in an 1864 book of social history. He states that in 1841 Diamond quit his work as a dancer in the employ of Barnum and was replaced by "a genuine negro", whom Barnum billed as "the champion nigger-dancer of the world". The black dancer would have debuted in the spring of 1841. Nichols never identified the dancer as Juba, but later writers concluded that the boy was that performer. Historian Eric Lott has identified the irony of this arrangement: a black man imitating a white man imitating a black man.
Beginning in the early 1840s, Juba began a series of dance competitions known as challenge dances. He faced white rival John Diamond, who advertised that he "delineate the Ethiopian character superior to any other white person". Sources disagree about the date of their first contest; it may have occurred while Diamond was still working for Barnum or a year or two later. This advertisement from the July 8, 1844, New York Herald is typical of the publicity the matches generated:
GREAT PUBLIC CONTEST
Between the two most renowned dancers in the world, the Original JOHN DIAMOND and the colored boy JUBA, for a Wager of $200, on MONDAY EVENING July 8th at the BOWERY AMPHITHEATRE, which building has been expressly hired from the Proprietor, Mr. Smith, for this night only, as its accommodations will afford all a fair view of each step of these wonderful Dancers. The fame of these two Celebrated Breakdown Dancers has already spread over the Union, and the numerous friends of each claim the Championship for their favorite, and who have anxiously wished for a Public Trial between them and thus known which is to bear the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World. The time to decide that has come, as the friends of Juba have challenged the world to produce his superior in the art for $100. That Challenge has been accepted by the friends of Diamond, and on Monday Evening they meet and Dance three Jigs, Two Reels, and the Camptown Hornpipe. Five Judges have been selected for their ability and knowledge of the Art, so that a fair decision will be made.
Rule—Each Dancer will select his own Violin and the victory will be decided by the best time and the greatest number of steps.
Historian James W. Cook has suggested that Juba and Diamond may have staged their first competition as a form of mutual publicity. Claims of black superiority over an acclaimed white rival were otherwise unheard of in the climate of racial segregation and white supremacy that permeated New York City and the country at large in the mid-1840s.
Challenge dances usually employed three judges. One sat on the stage and counted time, another sat in or near the orchestra pit and judged style, and the third went under the stage and observed the dancer's execution to listen for "missing taps, defective rolls and heel work, the lagging in the breaks". After the dance, they compared notes and chose the winner. Audience members and friends of the competitors bet on the outcome and could name the victor by popular acclaim in the case the judges could not come to a decision. According to an undated reference by Leavitt, Juba lost one challenge, at the Boylston Gardens in Boston, but records show that he beat Diamond in all other competitions. An undated clipping from the Harvard Theatre Collection, written by a fan of minstrelsy, describes the single dance competition that Diamond managed to win: "One of the fiddlers played a reel for him, and he shuffled, and twisted, and walked around, and danced on for one hour and fifteen minutes by the watch." Then Juba made a loud strike with his left foot as the crowd cheered and he got a drink from the bar. Diamond was next and tried to act cool but resolute. He knew that he would displease Barnum by losing and he had his race at stake: "There was another thing about this match-dance that made Diamond want to win. You see it was not only a case of Barnum's Museum against Pete Williams's dance-house, but it was a case of white against black. So Jack Diamond went at his dancin' with double energy—first, for his place, next, for his color." He beat Juba's time and "gave a hop, skip and a jump, a yell and a bow". A black man shouted out, "He's a white man, sure ... but he's got a nigger in his heel." The two had their most famous matchup in New York City in 1844, where Juba beat Diamond for $500. Juba then traveled to Boston, billing himself as the "King of All the Dancers", and played for two weeks, with competitions versus Frank Diamond (no relation to John).
In 1842, English writer Charles Dickens toured New York's Five Points. This was around the time of the challenge dances, and Dickens was possibly drawn by rumors of Barnum's disguising of a black youth as a white minstrel performer. There the writer witnessed a performance by "a lively young negro" at the Almack's tavern and brothel at 67 Orange Street in the infamous Mulberry Bend. The November 11, 1842, edition of the New York Herald later identified this dancer as Juba. Dickens wrote in his American Notes,
The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly ...
... But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.
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? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!
Juba may have capitalized on the free publicity given him by Dickens as he made the jump from the saloon to the stage. An undated excerpt from the New York Herald describes Juba's appearance with a minstrel troupe at Pete Williams' dance hall on Orange Street:
... hose who passed through the long hallway and entered the dance hall, after paying their shilling to the darky doorkeeper, whose "box-office" was a plain soap box, or a wooden one of that description, saw this phenomenon, "Juba," imitate all the dancers of the day and their special steps. Then Bob Ellingham, the interlocutor and master of ceremonies, would say, "Now, Master Juba, show your own jig." Whereupon he would go through all his own steps and specialties, with never a resemblance in any of them to those he had just imitated.
In this performance, Juba imitated the white minstrel performers Richard Pelham, Frank Brower, John Daniels, John Smith, James Sanford, Frank Diamond, and John Diamond. The idea that Juba could "imitate himself" after mimicking his rivals points up, according to Lott, "minstrelsy's fundamental consequence for black culture, the dispossession and control by whites of black forms that would not for a long time be recovered". Nevertheless, Juba's imitations of his white rivals asserted his greater mastery of the styles then current in blackface dance. They also asserted that this was an artistic medium worthy of imitation. James W. Cook writes, "in a sense, the Imitation Dance served as a powerful act of defiance from someone who, more typically, would have lacked any means of broader representational control".
Dancers came to recognize Juba as the best, and his fame soared. By 1845, he was so well known that he no longer had to impersonate a white minstrel on stage. He toured through New England with the Georgia Champion Minstrels in 1844. The bill called him "The Wonder of the World Juba, Acknowledged to be the Greatest Dancer in the World. Having danced with John Diamond at the Chatham Theatre for $500, and at the Bowery Theatre for the same amount, and established himself as the King of All Dancers. No conception can be formed of the variety of beautiful and intricate steps exhibited by him with ease. You must see to believe."
In 1845, Juba began touring with the Ethiopian Minstrels. The troupe gave him top billing over its four white members, unprecedented for a black performer. From 1846, Juba toured with White's Serenaders, under the tutelage of Charles "Charlie" White, as a dancer and tambourine player off and on until at least 1850. He played a character named Ikey Vanjacklen, "the barber's boy" in a piece called "Going for the Cup, or, Old Mrs. Williams's Dance", one of the earliest known minstrel sketches. It focused on Juba's dancing in a milieu of competition and showing off. The plot follows two characters trying to fix a dance contest by soaping the floor in a way that will make all of the competitors fall except Ikey. They bet on Vanjacklen, but in the end, the judge steals the money.
Read more about this topic: Master Juba
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