Film History Essentials: The P********* Dance from the “Passing Show” (1894)

What it’s about:

Three men engage in a friendly dance competition, with each taking his turn in the center while one plays the harmonica and the others keep rhythm by clapping along.

Why it’s essential:

Shot in mid- to late-fall of 1894, this film is believed to be the earliest appearance by African Americans in a motion picture. The three performers are Joe Rastus (the first dancer, in the light shirt), Denny Tolliver (the second dancer, in the dark shirt), and Walter Wilkins (the final dancer, on the harmonica). Rastus, Tolliver, and Wilkins were three members of an eleven-member dance troupe that performed a number, alongside a white woman in blackface (Lucy Daly), called “The Pickaninny Dance.”

This act was part of a larger program called “The Passing Show,” which was purportedly the first successful musical revue on Broadway. It was a sort of topical variety extravaganza composed of loosely-connected acts. Its success launched a trend that would persist in popularity, on both stage and (eventually) screen, for decades. As to the nature of the act itself:

The general designation for tap dancing at the turn of the century was “buck.” The term can be traced back to the West Indies, where Africans use the words po’ bockorau as a corruption of the French word boucanier to refer to rowdy sailors, and to the Carolinas, where Africans spoke of the “po buck” jig dancing of unruly Irish immigrants.
While the jig and clog dance of the Irish moved from the knees down, its art being purely auditory, the buck dance of African Americans was more robust and full bodied, allowing the rhythms to move up into the body
[T]he earliest example of buck dancing on film is […] a trio of professional dancers engaged in the rivalrous camaraderie of a buck challenge dance, alternately performing for and accompanying each other.

Constance Valis Hill, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, pp. 22-23

It’s impossible not to notice that, while this film depicts a prominent tradition in American dance, it also illustrates a powerful strain of racism that runs through American entertainment. The title, of course, contains an ugly slur that refers to black children. This may seem particularly confusing, given that the performers in the film are all very clearly full-grown men. The title comes from their stage act, in which the title role was played by Daly, made-up (according to one newspaper reviewer’s description) as a “little mad-cap negro girl.”

To add further insult, a catalog listing for the film describes it as: “A scene representing Southern plantation life before the war. A jig and a breakdown by three colored boys.” On top of its use of the condescending diminutive “boy,” this description posits that the performers are meant to be portraying enslaved people in a way that suggests slaves were contented and carefree. Recall, too, that anyone in their 30s at this time was old enough to have been alive at a time when slavery still existed.

It’s important to understand that, while the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the South and its cornerstone of white supremacy won the ensuing culture war, with consequences that continue to be powerful forces in our society even to the present day. The historical narrative that came to dominate white Americans’ understanding of the Civil War and its aftermath was of an intrafamilial strife that tragically destroyed a courtly and noble way of life. Nostalgic fantasy versions of antebellum culture and society, strongly rooted in a rigid racial hierarchy, came to be both mourned and celebrated as lost ideals in all forms of American art and entertainment, and the movies were fully complicit in that mythmaking process.

Why you should see it:

I think some historical films whose production is marred to a greater or lesser degree by overt racism are important to watch, or at least important not to ignore or forget, because they remind us of how much and for how long white supremacy has existed as a persistent theme running through our culture, and of the long shadow it casts. Although some people don’t need to be reminded, because they exist under that shadow every day. But I think this film is worth watching because its stars transcend the racist framing of the film’s producers, displaying in a very brief period of time an infectious energy and a level of artistic skill that are a genuine pleasure to watch. The title and description given to their performance by others cannot rob them of their ability to impress and to make their own mark on cinema history.


~ by Jared on February 3, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: The P********* Dance from the “Passing Show” (1894)”

  1. […] worse even as they prepared to put their lives on the line. However, like the dancers from “The Passing Show,” their accomplishments transcend their characterization by others. Colored Troops […]


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