LES Young Historians Dig Into Catherine Street’s Tap Dancing Roots (Part 2)

Master Juba illustration from “American Notes.”

Editor’s note: This story was written by Alfonso Guerriero, Jr., who with fellow teacher Christopher Piccigallo at P.S. 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology created an innovative program called the Lower East Side Young Historians. This is the second part of a two-part article. You can read Part 1 here

In part 1 of our story, published Tuesday, we set the stage for the discovery by our students that tap dancing likely began on Catherine Street in the early-1800s rather than in the nearby Five points area, as many modern texts assert. A tradition amongst African-American slaves known as Dancing for Eels frequently played out at the Catherine Market. It was the precursor of tap dancing. Today we pick up the story where we left off earlier in the week.

The first question that comes to mind is this: How did our students make the connection with Dancing for Eels and tap dancing if most sources unequivocally omit the connection to Catherine Street?  We concluded that one reason Five Points gets the credit is due to Charles Dickens.  In his book, American Notes, published in 1842, the writer describes a very talented dancer seen in Five Points:

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?


Historians later identified this dancer as William Henry Lane (1825?-1852) or by his monikers Master Juba or Boz’s Juba. Master Juba was already known in the minstrel shows in the Northeastern part of the United States during the 1840s but Dickens popularizes him even more.  Students noticed that Master Juba’s name usually associated with tap, jazz and step dancing. It is certainly true that Master Juba was a very innovative and skillful dancer. He was influenced by the dance styles of his African ancestors and he was also inspired by a popular Irish American jig dancer in the 1840s, John Diamond.  As Master Juba’s name surfaced often, students decided, with teacher guidance, to gather more facts about the slave names mentioned by Thomas F. De Voe, who authored The Market Book: A History of Public Markets of the City of New York, published in 1862.

One student, Elijah, skimmed De Voe’s book, focusing on the name of “Bob Rowley who called himself Bobolink Bob,” only because his nickname sounded catchy and he was dancing in the 1820s around the time Master Juba was  born. In fact, the market reached its pinnacle in the 1820s before many were visiting or writing about the decadence surrounding Five Points.  Through teacher and student collaboration, we found interesting information, although limited, about Bobolink Bob and we began to notice connections to tap dancing.

In Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing, author Mark Knowles quotes De Voe and identifies Bobolink Bob and other slaves who competed in street performances:

These slaves brought with them shingles or planks of wood which are synonymous with our present day tap mats….”

Luke, another student from the group and an experienced tap dancer, reminded us the plank of wood is indeed what he used in his tap dancing video created earlier this year for a social studies project about cultural diversity on the Lower East Side.

ny sun

And then like discovering the Holy Grail, we found a newspaper article that started to frame our argument even more clearly.  On January 9th, 1932 The New York Sun one of the many local periodicals in city at the time, published an article, Where Tap Dancing Had Its Start Here. “Thus, we find Catherine street virtually paved with stories,” The Sun reported, “among them being this quaint one of how tap dancing began in New York.”

The same student sought more information before making this bold claim.  “Mr. Guerriero,” he said, “We learned that tap dancing is a mixture of African and Irish style dancing, so where is the element of the Irish influence in the article and books?” He was right in his analysis; we needed to find the connection between Irish immigrants and African-American performers at the Catherine Market in order to make our assertion, since most agree, at least, that tap dancing grew out of these two cultures.

Once again, another intriguing connection emerged.  Dance historian April F. Masten, writing in Cultures in Motion, described the scene at the Catherine Market:

Irish immigrants and their children were there too, enjoying the familiar format and unusual content of the dancing competition… While patting juba was an African-American technique, dancing on a board was an Irish practice used to demonstrate the dancer’s agility and enhance the sound of the percussive steps.

catherine market

We started to reexamine our information and began to make inferences based on what we had learned.  First, Catherine Market was created by a wealthy group led by Henry Rutgers, who realized the market’s location would be profitable, before the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges were even a forethought to the NYC skyline.  One of the prime reasons for building the market was the existence of the Catherine ferry that ran along the East River, shuttling residents living in Brooklyn, Long Island and other parts of the city to Lower Manhattan, creating a central hub for transport and generating a high volume of traffic. The burghers and their servants, as well as immigrants purchased food and produce at the market while they were delighted every Sunday by the contorted moves of African American slaves and free slaves.

As we scanned more evidence, we connected the dots between the Irish and African dancers bringing “planks” or “shingles” of wood “to enhance the sound of their steps” at the public market.  We deduced that dancing on a wood shingle, a major component to tap dancing, may have already been influenced by the Irish indentured servants when they interacted with African slaves in the West Indies, circa the eighteenth century.  We went on to reason that as more African slaves were forced to North America, the wood plank dancing was already endemic to African dances passed down from generation to generation and introduced to the docks of Catherine Street.

There’s another possibility we considered. Catherine Slip was a location for ships to dock. It was a main port area where seamen from various cultures,  including those with Irish backgrounds, stayed for a few days to enjoy the Lower Manhattan scene.  They mingled with all groups and certainly witnessed, as well as participated in, the entertainment. Furthermore, Irish immigrants arrived in early nineteenth century (pre-1840s potato famine) to Lower Manhattan and viewed the Dancing for Eels performances, in all probability they joined in and demonstrated their own dance moves at the market.

For example, there is evidence of a small group of butchers with Irish surnames at the stalls of the Catherine Market.  During free time, they would sing and dance the jig, exposing both groups to each other’s dance moves.  Based on various primary and secondary sources, we determined that — similar to the interaction between Irish immigrants and African-Americans in the Five Points — the precursor to the tap phenomenon in New York City first occurred on Catherine Street before Master Juba’s notoriety at the infamous slum. The residents from Five Points most likely were influenced by the slave performers of Catherine Street.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice as Jim Crow, 1832.

If that was not enough, we also found another intriguing fact.  Thomas Dartmouth Rice was a famous minstrel performer who mimicked African-American speech, song and dance. He was the creator of the Jim Crow character.  According to Robert M. Lewis, in Traveling Show to Vaudeville:

Rice was born in the Bowery’s Catherine Street, apprenticed as a ship’s carver and then became an itinerant actor and circus comic in the River towns of the Ohio valley and the Upper South… Growing up one block away from Catherine Market, Rice had seen blacks dancing for eels.

The genesis of tap dancing in New York City could not only be traced to Catherine Street but the thoroughfare represented the birth of the Jim Crow minstrel performances, too.

We continued to explore why Five Points is more noted than Catherine Street as the birthplace of tap dancing. One student pointed out that one reason might be “Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York,”  loosely based on Herbert Ashbury’s book of the same name. The film created a publicity frenzy and inspired writers to capitalize on the Five Points mystique.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 5.28.07 PM

We tested our Catherine Street theories with local residents, staff members from PS126/MAT, parents and a local historian.  Some of those interviewed referenced Tyler Anbinder’s book, Five Points, in which he argues that the origins of tap dancing stem from Master Juba and other Irish dancers performing at Pete Williams’s Dance Hall at the Five Points.  Our thesis does not aim to discredit Anbinder’s theory, but we are confident that our claim is more viable based on the evidence collected.

Alice, a student member of our group, discovered in her research that “tap dancing’s popularity decreased as ballet and modern dance took center stage, until the tap genre reemerged in the 1970s. A decade later, in 1984, singer, actor and perennial tap dancer, Gregory Hines starred in The Cotton Club followed by another movie, White Nights, that showcased the art of tap dancing.  Gregory Hines and other tap enthusiasts, lobbied in 1988 to recognize May 25th as National Tap Dance Day in the United States.  In the twenty-first century, a new generation can view and appreciate tap dancing and other dance genres, vis-à-vis television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance & Dancing with the Stars.

While students revise and edit their research papers due this month, many of them want to know why Catherine Street does not receive any historical acclaim when, in all probability, it should be credited with the birth of tap dancing.

catherine street

Today, on the corner of Catherine Street where Dancing for Eels took place, the market’s stalls and echoing beats to the African shuffle and Irish jig are long gone, and have been replaced by apartment buildings, car engines, bakeries and delis.  Instead of musical sounds and twisting limbs following a rhythmic beat on a dock, children are playing outside their schools’ playground and residents are talking on park benches or corners while a few tourists stroll through, all unaware of the street’s remarkable past. There are no signs memorializing the legacy of what occurred centuries ago, on Catherine Street.  Although slavery is a dark chapter of American history, the market represented a moment in time when all races and social classes joined together and interacted.

Catherine Street is a typical urban passageway in America where there are layers and layers of history that are waiting to be peeled back by those willing to learn about their local communities. For this reason, the city and state should consider erecting a memorial along Catherine and Cherry streets (where the market was situated until 1907). Action should be taken before capricious investors build another condominium complex and change yet again, the layout of the neighborhood.

As for the Lower East Side Young Historians, we learned a great deal about Catherine Street as a time capsule of New York City’s past and our nation’s history. Therefore, we intend to reach out to community leaders and local politicians to request that the legacy of Catherine Market and Dancing for Eels, be remembered. During the upcoming school year, teachers and students seek to petition for the section formerly called the Catherine Market to have a historical marker that memorializes the street’s illustrious past.  The program wants students to be proactive in learning and studying about their local history and to preserve, protect and inform others in order to truly value the lessons of history.