Compiled from "Image of Perfection:
The Freestyle Dance of Matt Mattox"
by Bob Boross

American Dances

The observation of "Negro" dancing by whites led to a stereotype of the dancing Negro slave. Whites began to blacken their faces with burnt cork in order to imitate the Negro dancer. In 1767, well before the Revolutionary War, the New York Journal reported a "Negro Dance in Character" being performed . In 1799, the "Song of a Negro Boy" was performed in Boston. One of America's first professional dancers, John Durang, described parts of his dancing in 1789 as containing "shuffles," a vernacular movement. The first acclaimed imitation of Negro dancing was by Thomas Rice in 1828. His dance, the "Jump Jim Crow", was a duplication of the movement of a crippled slave, and became a world wide sensation. This dance set the groundwork for an era of American entertainment based on the gross stereotype of the dancing Negro.

Prior to the Civil War, professional dancing was primarily done by whites - with the exception of William Henry Lane. Known as Master Juba, Lane was a freeborn slave judged to be the best dancer in the world. He inhabited the poor Five Points District in Manhattan, where Irish immigrants mixed with Negroes. His dancing was a combination of Irish jig dancing and African rhythm. Many felt that he was adding the elusive element of "swing" to the rhythmic pattern and thus distinguishing himself from more common dancers. Master Juba's fame was international, and he was instrumental in popularizing American Negro vernacular dance throughout the world.


Minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in America from 1845-1900, and it greatly increased the influence of African-American dance on American life. The Minstrel show was a group of up to fifty performers who travelled from town to town in a show that portrayed the Negro as either a slow, shuffling idiot or a sharply dressed dandy. A minstrel show had three parts. In the first, the performers (all male) sat in a semi-circle facing the audience and engaged in comic banter led by a dignified "interlocutor" and two "endmen". The second section, or "olio", was a succession of singing, acting and dance acts. The final section, the "afterpiece", was an extravaganza by the entire cast that was a burlesque of a serious drama of the times. Both the first and third sections normally ended with a "walkaround", where performers would individually travel downstage in solo dance tricks and then circle around to the back to start another display. The minstrel show figured prominently in spreading vernacular dances like the cakewalk, the essence, and jig dancing on a wide scale.

Roots of Theatrical Jazz Dance

The next major change in vernacular dance after minstrelsy came with the advent of ragtime music and ballroom dancing after 1910. Before 1910, there were only two types of songs, happy or sad. During this decade, songs whose lyrics described how to do a dance were being written by Negro composers. A barrage of animal dances, indirectly inspired by African animal dances, swept white ballrooms. Some of these were the Turkey Trot, the Monkey Glide, the Chicken Scratch, and the Bunny Hug. Irene and Vernon Castle popularized the Turkey Trot in the Broadway show The Sunshine Girl and made dancing popular in high society. The invasion of ballrooms with vernacular inspired dances set the stage for the same process to occur in the white world of Broadway.

Darktown Follies opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1911. It featured the Cakewalk, Ballin' the Jack, and the Texas Tommy (the latter being significant as a forerunner of the Lindy). Produced by J. Leubrie Hill, it introduced social dances in a theatrical setting, and its popularity began affecting how white producers assembled their shows. In 1927, Theophilus Lewis of the Pittsburgh Courier said that :

The tendency to borrow from the colored stage openly ... began when J. Leubrie Hill produced his 'Darktown Follies' ... Hill's production marked the turning point in the relations existing between the white stage and the colored stage...Before that time the Negro theater had borrowed its materials and methods from the white stage.

That the legendary impressario Florenz Zeigfield purchased outright a circle dance from Darktown Follies for his own Broadway show on the roof of the New York Theatre illustrates this point. It also was the beginning of the nightly migration by whites to Harlem in search of entertainment ideas for Broadway shows. The most significant aspect being borrowed was not actual dances but the "swinging or propulsive" qualities of the songs and dances.

In 1921, Shuffle Along featured a jazz inspired dance called the Charleston that created a sensation due to its unbridled energy and irrepressible spirit. James Haskins, in Black Dance in America, states that

The most immediate effect of Shuffle Along was an absolute craze for jazz dancing. White New Yorkers suddenly decided that black dancing was not so low-life after all. In fact, judging by the young people in the show's chorus, this kind of dance seemed to be the ticket to happiness.

Shuffle Along also brought tap dance to white audiences, and black musicals were now in vogue.

Overall, musical comedies took on a new, more rhythmic life - the chorus girls danced to jazz music and danced vernacular jazz dances. This trend continued until the late 1920s.