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date: 29 February 2020

Abstract and Keywords

That dancing was part of antebellum America’s rough-and-tumble world of sport is little known today, but scores of men and women made their names and livings by challenging each other to jig, hornpipe, and even ballet competitions. Jig dancers earned continental reputations as artists and athletes by matching up in scored bouts for hefty purses, silver belts, and side bets. Champion dancers gained large followings as they met in local taverns or toured circus and theater circuits. This chapter argues that challenge dancing thrived in the 1840s and 1850s because it tapped into trends and traditions popular among whites and blacks of both sexes. Challenge dancers engaged in trials of skill, combined Irish and African steps, emulated boxers, wore blackface, copied danseuses, and exploited the popular press. In the process, they transformed a local entertainment into a marketable, media-driven profession with national, and even transnational, appeal.

Keywords: African dance, ballet, blackface, boxing, challenge dance, hornpipe, jig, Irish step, sport, walk-around

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