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Stephen Foster | Behind the Scenes

Minstrel Dances


Every film production has its own stories of research and discovery. For Stephen Foster producers Beth Hager and Randy MacLowry, creating the dances Stephen Foster would have seen was a major challenge. "We needed to capture the energy and exhiliration of that music and dancing," MacLowry explains, "because it would have been captivating to Stephen Foster. At the time he was just a young boy, just 9 or 10 years old. It was a totally different sound than any music he would have heard before. And in a little over ten years after first seeing blackface performances, Foster would be writing his own minstrel songs." To film these scenes, they turned to two talented performers, Lenwood Sloan and Fernand Jackson.

A dancer, choreographer, and scholar of dance history, Lenwood Sloan describes the process of reconstructing historical dances as "panning for gold or digging up dinosaur bones." In his research, he evaluates written historical sources. He takes an ethnomusicological approach of studying the music for its rhythm, meter, and other attributes. He examines verbal cues for movement included in the lyrics of a song, or its annotated sheet music. And he makes use of a technique known as Effort Shape, in which historical images of dancers are laid out, treated like storyboards, and analyzed to uncover the effort a dancer would have to use to make the movement that is depicted. Using these methods, Sloan can create choreography with deep connections to historical dances performed before motion pictures and video were invented.

As Sloan explains it, one key to reconstructing minstrel dances is the study of differences between African and European movement traditions. In general, the traditions differ in their treatment of the ground and the foot. African dance traditions include movement that falls to the earth, with flexed foot and an emphasis on weight or gravity. In contrast, European traditions tend to rise from the earth, with a pointed foot and less contact with the ground. 

These traditions collided in antebellum American culture. African Americans created shuffling dances in the African tradition, which were then taken up by blackface minstrel performers. In Thomas "Daddy" Rice's wildly popular "jumping Jim Crow" dance, performed to acclaim throughout the 1830s, the dancer wheeled, spun, shuffled, glided, and was accompanied by the rhythms of patting, slapping, and clapping.

In addition to Rice's dance, Sloan drew inspiration from a dance popularized in the mid-19th century by William Henry Lane, an African American performer known as "Master Juba." Lane famously competed against Irish American jig dancers at Madison Square Garden in 1848; the contestants combined European movements and African polyrhythms into one dance, the juba. Juba was danced up in the air, with feet turned out, and heels clicking together. The arms moved with the melodic instruments, especially the fiddle, and the lower body moved with the percussive instruments.

Dancer Fernand Jackson, who passed away unexpectedly in early 2001, is remembered as an electrifying performer. Sloan describes Jackson as having had some of the "fastest feet in the Western world," with an unusually well-honed talent for rhythmic isolation, moving in different rhythms with different parts of his body simultaneously. In addition to these abilities, Jackson was a walking dance library, with a seemingly photographic memory for movement.

Working together, Jackson and Sloan drew on their collective knowledge of a wide range of European, African, and American dance traditions to create the minstrel dances MacLowry and Hager wanted for Stephen Foster. Sloan characterizes his choreography as requiring European feet and an African body, illustrating the fusion of techniques that took place. Jackson's performance, in silhouette, reveals the excitement, novelty, and energy of performances that brought enormous audiences to minstrel shows in Foster's day.


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