The Five Points district in lower Manhattan, today bound by Centre Street to the west, Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south, in the nineteenth century was a Black/Irish (African-American and Irish-American) neighborhood, reputed to be the birthplace of tap dance in New York City. During Tap City 2016, the New York City Tap Festival, at downtown Foley Square (once known as the historic Five Points District), the American Tap Dance Foundation will produce Tap It Out, a contemporary percussion and movement “soundscape” that promotes Tap Dance as pure music. Worldwide students of all ages and levels will join together to create a chorus of 300 tapping feet.
The Five Points at first consisted primarily of newly-emancipated African Americans (gradual emancipation led to the end of slavery in New York on July 4, 1827) and Irish, who had a small minority presence in the area since the 1600s. Although there were many tensions between the African Americans and the Irish, their cohabitation in Five Points was the first large-scale instance of volitional racial integration in American history.
The Five Points was the birthplace of Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, the white actor and hornpipe dancer who established the singing-dancing “Negro Boy” as a dancehall character, and whose “Jump Jim Crow” performance dominated the minstrel stage in the nineteenth century. Born in New York City in 1808 in the Seventh Ward of the Five Points, Rice’s father was a ship’s rigger who lived at 60 Catherine Street, near the docks and just blocks from Catherine Market, where the boy first saw black dancers. His interests in African-American folklore, music, and gesture were furthered while touring the South as a young actor. There are a number of conflicting stories about how Rice first saw a black livery stable boy, who was crippled, do a little song and dance which the actor quickly copied and transformed into one that consisted of limping, shuffling, and jigging movements, with a little jump at the end of each refrain. The lyric, set to an old English Morris dance tune, was as follows:
First on de heel,
Den on de toe,
Ebery time I wheel about
I jump Jim Crow.
The dance combined the hops of the Irish jig with a jump and a shuffle. The jump came from the custom of the broom jump, which took place when black slave couples were about to get married on the plantation; the shuffle was the plantation slave’s creative substitute for dancing without crossing the legs, which was forbidden. After “Daddy” Rice, Irishmen George Churty and Dan Emmett organized the Virginia Minstrels, a troupe of blackface performers, thus consolidating Irish-American and Afro-American song and dance styles on the minstrel stage. By 1840, the minstrel show—a blackface act of songs, fast-talking repartee in Negro dialects and shuffle-and-wing tap dancing—became the most popular form of entertainment on the American stage.
It was in the Five Points that Charles Dickens first witnessed the virtuosic jigging/tap dancing of William Henry Lane. Writing in American Notes (1842), Dickens describes a visit to the Five Points in which he witnessed a performance by a dancer who was probably Lane: “Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross cut; snapping 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 wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs.” Born a free man, Lane grew up in the Five Points district of lower Manhattan, near Catherine’s Market, whose thoroughfares were lined with brothels and saloons largely occupied by free blacks and indigent Irish immigrants. Learning to dance from an “Uncle” Jim Lowe, an African-American jig and reel dancer of exceptional skill, Lane was unsurpassed in grace and technique. He was popular for imitating the steps of famous minstrel dancers of the day, and then executing his own specialty steps that no one could copy. In 1844, after beating the reining Irish-American minstrel John Diamond (1823-1857) in a series of challenge dances, Lane was hailed “King of All Dancers” and proclaimed “Master Juba.” He was the first African-American dancer to tour with the all-white minstrel troupe, Pell's Ethiopian Serenaders, and to perform without blackface makeup for the Queen of England. Lane‘s grafting of African rhythms and a loose body styling onto the exacting techniques of jig and clog forged a new rhythmic blend of percussive dance that was considered the earliest form of American tap dance.
On July 16, 2016, in downtown Foley Square at 111 Worth Street, which was once the center of the historic Five Points District, the American Tap Dance Foundation presented Tap It Out. This free public and outdoor event, conducted by ATDF director Tony Waag, is a choreographed orchestral collage of 300 tapping feet, dancing a cappella unison rhythms, contrapuntal sequences, individual riffs, movements and grooves. Phrases are developed through repetition, creating multiple canons and conversations, mixing and blending unison segments with overlaid beats that build to crescendos or diminish to a silence creating a super “hybrid” explosion of tones and rhythms.
By Constance Valis Hill (2016)
Constance Valis Hill, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: The Black Presence in the Art of American Dance.” Catalog, Detroit Museum of Art; www.atdf.org.