The Minstrel Stage and its Dances

By the time Thomas Dartmouth Rice made his appearance as Jim Crow in 1828, the racist American public had been well prepared to accept him. The first reference to a Negro performing a dance did not come until 1808, and then was billed as an "exotic". Generally, in most cases, the performing forerunners of Rice had been whites in blackface. The stereotypes which were to be fully developed by minstrelsy were begun long before. In April, 1767, the New York journal announced Mr. Bayly and Mr. Tea presented a dancing interlude "A Negro Dance, in Character", which was the first found that specifies dance. The second reference in 1796 included the word "comic": "A Comic Dance, In Character of a Female Negro" (again performer was white impersonating a Negro). According to Loften Mitchell, a play "The Triumph of Love" (1795) introduced a shuffling, cackling, allegedly comic Negro servant. Thus, the course was therefore established - that was to lead the black man to be represented on the American stage as something to be ridiculed and a creature to be denied human status, that was only enhanced by characters of Jim Crow and Zip Coon popular in American culture of that times.

Rice first performed Jim Crow in 1828, yet it was not until 1840's that the first formal MINSTREL troupe was organized. The first group were the Virginia Minstrels, composed of Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Dick Pelham. All four were white. As more companies were organized, a standard program format developed, a pattern, that was fairly universal by the 1850's and consisted of THREE parts. The FIRST part looked like a parody to African ceremonies and was designed to show-off the entire company sitting in a semicircle, flanked by endmen Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. The interlocutor sat in the center and carries on a question-answer session with the comic endmen. The first part began with an overture, continued with the comic question-answer period, included some comic and sentimental songs, and ended with the final Walk-Around. The SECOND part was the Olio, in which the variety of singing, dancing and speaking acts were performed. The THIRD, and the final part, known as the Afterpiece, was usually a burlesque of a serious drama popular at the time.

Part One in a traditional minstrel show always ended with a dance, called the Walk-Around, done by the entire cast. Sometimes it was repeated at the finale of the Part Three, too. The Walk-Around was mentioned usually in connection with the Breakdown or old-fashioned Hoe-Down. The Walk-Around derived from the Ring Shout (however, the only similarity was the dance in a form of the circle), and the Breakdown from the old challenge dances such as Juba. Another famous minstrel dance was the Essence Dance. Stearnses believed that the Essence was the first popular dance - for professionals - from the African-American vernacular. The Essence of Old Virginia came from the Shuffle and led to the early Soft Shoe. Other dances mentioned in connection with minstrelsy included the repertoire of Dan Bryant, the leading minstrel performer at the time: "Sugar Cane Reel, Congo Coconut Dance, Burlesque African Polka, Corn Shucking Jig, Miss Issippi Fling, Zouave Clog Reel, Smoke House Reel and Fling D'Ethiope", but these dances were developed especially for a racist and grotesque minstrelsy shows and HARDLY have any relation to an authentic Negro Dance.

Minstrelsy shows were a white people caricature vision of black culture, and by the period of its decline any resemblance between the blackface stereotype and the real Negro was remote. However, since most of the dancers and actors were whites impersonating blacks, what was seen by the public was not the authentic Negro but rather "the Negro as a stage character, as a caricature rather than a human being". And it looks even worse than it sounds: