Blackface minstrel shows started as small aspect of entertainment but quickly became full-length shows. The Virginia Minstrels, created by Dan Emmett, were the first to create the first full-length minstrel performance giving audiences an entire evening of entertainment. Their show featured skits, music, and dance and was a success in America and abroad. Other minstrel troupes followed suit.
One troupe in particular, Christy's Minstrels, standardized their performance into three acts. The first act opened with a song then featured wisecracking banter between the straight-man master of ceremonies (interlocutor) and the more comic and silly music performers. This chitchat act later lead to duo-type performances between "Mr. Tambo" (tambourine player) and/or "Mr. Bones" (bones or spoons player). The second act featured a fractured play (often Shakespeare) or a dance performance with a featured guest of high talent like William Henry Lane or John Diamond. The third act usually opened with a pun filled stump speech and a large musical number using all the dancers and musicians. This show pattern can be seen in variety and talk shows to this day, such as the opening monologue, music performances, and banter between the bandleader and the host.
Music was a central aspect of the minstrel show. For many white northerners, the minstrel shows were their only glimpse into black southern slave life, music, food, and culture. Though skewed and unrealistic, the performances brought issues of slavery to the hearts and minds of white Americans. Popular musical instruments such as the banjo, tambourine, and bones (like spoons) taken from Black-American culture were fashionable due to the popularity of minstrel shows. The melody, lyrics, and structure of many songs used in minstrelsy were assimilated from slave spirituals and African-American cultural expression. Some shows, like Ethiopian Serenaders, attempted to keep to clean and inoffensive material. The focus of their show was to feature talent rather than slapstick and bawdy jokes. However, most shows featured grossly distorted characters of African-Americans being stereotyped as lazy, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. Skit and song subjects often featured a grossly inaccurate depiction of slave life and using a humorous view of the mistreatment of slaves. A common song theme featured a runaway or freed slave missing his master.
Dance became an important element of the minstrel show. For example, the cakewalk was a dance invented by slaves imitating the white slave owners. Amused by the dance, slave owners liked this dance and held cakewalk dance competitions, where the winner would win a cake, aka take the cake. These dances were appropriated and exaggerated by minstrel show performers. Later black performers danced the "cakewalk" dance and were told to make in more "authentic" by exaggerating body movements. William Henry Lane, an African American performer and dancer known as "Master Juba", used both African-American dance and Irish-immigrant dance with an emphasis on footwork to create his routines. William Henry Lane and John Diamond, who both worked in multiple minstrel troupes and used dance steps from African, Irish, and English culture had multiple dance-offs in the 1840s. John Diamond, who was white, danced both with and without blackface make-up.