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LES Young Historians Unearth Tap Dancing’s Catherine Street Origins

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catherine market dancing
1848 lithograph — Dancing for Eels composition, by E. & J. Brown.

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 first part of a two-part story. 

Rapacious investors seeking to increase their profit margins are replacing many of New York City’s historic treasures.  One city section that has developers lurking in the background is the area along Catherine Street located on the Lower East Side  Yet even before real estate investors prowled this prime real estate, Catherine Street’s historical significance was already forgotten. This public street exemplifies a lost, unknown part of U.S. history only recognized by a few.  Recently, however,  a group of eighth graders from a program called the Lower East Side Young Historians have uncovered several events about our school’s neighborhood that have remained dormant until now.  Through extensive research as part of our local history curriculum, we have learned that tap dancing originated on Catherine Street.

Since the Lower East Side symbolizes and continues to represent American immigration, one of the units of study for the Social Studies Eighth Grade Curriculum is immigration. From our Immigration unit and through our Lower East Side local history focus, one of the primary locations that we examine is the Five Points area.

Five Points was a disreputable slum, and as Charles Dickens averred when he toured the area circa 1841, “Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays.”

The slum epitomized a section in New York City known for infectious diseases, excessive gambling, brothels, and brawls, where there was supposedly “a murder a night.” Some of the earliest inhabitants of the Five Points district were African-Americans and Irish immigrants.  Historians and social scientists have ascertained that, inevitably, the two cultures interacted (not always harmoniously) in saloons and participated in dance competitions where the elements of tap dancing emerged.

Other experts in the field believe tap dancing, a fusion of the African shuffle and the Irish jig, evolved over time from slaves performing in the Southern States to the public markets in New York City.  In fact, historians contend that the antecedents of tap dancing can be traced as far back as the early eighteenth century to the West Indies, where Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans coalesced and performed their respective dance moves.

The profound history of tap dancing and its connection to the Lower East Side Five Points district intrigued four of our students (Alice, Crystal, Elijah, and Luke) as a research topic, while other students were eager to study different elements of social change that stem from our school’s neighborhood.

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As part of the Common Core Social Studies Reading/Writing Standards, eighth grade students are required to complete a 12 to 14 page research paper. In our program, students were asked to answer the following question: “How did various cultures settling on the Lower East Side contribute to the social changes of American history?”

Students defined social change with the following topics: food, dance, art/photography, fashion, movies/entertainment, architecture and urban sports. The idea of social change led to a wider range of interests pertaining to the Lower East Side and its impact on American history.  One student group, previously mentioned, was interested in learning and studying the Lower East Side’s influence on tap dancing. They used Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points: The 19th century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, as one of many sources.

catherine market

While this was happening, another group wanted to research foods brought over by immigrants to the Lower East Side.  I explained to this group of students that several centuries ago, right outside their school, there was the Catherine Market, a public market where butchers, bakers and fishermen gathered to sell various meats, fruits, vegetables and condiments, and it lasted for over a century.  Many of the students and families living in the area were unaware of the market created in 1786 by Colonel Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War hero and his affluent neighbors.

In the process of our research and unbeknownst to us at the time, these two unrelated topics, tap dancing and the Catherine Market, were intersecting.  One student interested in tap dancing noticed a name constantly referenced with the Catherine Market, Thomas F. De Voe.  The group learned that Thomas F. De Voe wrote at length about all the food markets in Lower Manhattan during the early to mid-eighteenth century.  He was a butcher himself at another market (Jefferson Market) and did work as a historian; thus to gather information more expeditiously, students perused Google books, and with teacher guidance, read The Market Book: A History of Public Markets of the City of New York published in 1862.

From this book, students learned that slaves performed every Sunday or during Pinkster, a festive few days for slaves at the market also known as “the market house at Catherine Slip.”  In explaining the Catherine Market, Thomas F. De Voe, declared:

The favorite dancing-place was a cleared spot on the east side of the fish market in front of Burnel Brown’s Ship Chandlery…  Among the most famous in their day was Ned (Francis) a little wiry negro slave… Another named Bob Rowley, who called himself “Bobolink Bob” and Jack… was a smart and faithful man, and when he was set free by the law, he became after a time, a loafer, and died at this market.

Apparently, many slaves congregated at the slip, to sell their masters’ produce or wares, and after the marketplace closed for the day, they performed and danced.  This pasttime became known as Dancing for Eels.

Students searched newspaper archives and viewed primary images created by lithographers capturing the scenes of African-Americans dancing at the Catherine Market to understand better this historical narrative.  During the 1820s the slaves at the Catherine market became popular. Slaves and free African-Americans would either be paid in money or with eels, a popular commodity that Catherine Market was known for in Lower Manhattan.  The dockside dancing brought many people from a wide range of social classes and ethnicities together.

We’ll continue our story tomorrow.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Outstanding original work by these kids.You don’t need a metric to know that these teachers should be rated highly effective.

  2. An absolutely fascinating historical account. As a music teacher in a school with a significant population of Irish and African Americans this article will become an invaluable resource in my classroom. What’s particularly heart-warming is how the students had such an active part in their own learning; how they uncovered something forgotten; how they discovered how beauty can evolve when cultures collide even in the harshest of conditions; how they learned by doing, collaborating, and researching for themselves. Test-score ideologues take note.

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