TAP DANCE HALL OF
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Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson,
who claimed he could run backward faster than most men
could go forward, was the most famous of all African
American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Dancing
upright and swinging, his light and exacting footwork
brought tap “up on its toes” from an earlier
flat-footed shuffling style, and developed the art of
tap dancing to a delicate perfection.
Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia,
his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885.
Young Bill was reared by his grandmother, Bedilia Robinson,
who had been a slave. In Richmond, he got the nickname
"Bojangles" from "jangler," meaning
contentious, and invented the phrase "Everything's
Copasetic," meaning tip-top. He got his first professional
job in 1892, performing as a member of the pickaninny
chorus for Mayme Remington with The South Before the
War. When Robinson arrived in New York in 1900, he challenged
the In Old Kentucky star tap dancer Harry Swinton to
a Buck-dancing contest and won. From 1902-1914, he teamed
with George W. Cooper. Bound by the "two-colored"
rule in vaudeville, which restricted blacks to performing
in pairs, they performed together on the Keith and Orpheum
circuits, but did not wear blackface makeup that performers
Robinson was a staunch professional,
but he was also a gambler who possessed a quick temper
and carried a gold-plated revolver. An assault charge
in 1915 split the act. After the split, Robinson launched
his solo career, becoming one of the few African-Americans
to headline at New York's prestigious Palace Theatre.
Robinson's Stair Dance, introduced in 1918, was distinguished
by its showmanship and sound, each step emitting a different
pitch and rhythm.
Onstage, his open face, twinkling eyes
and infectious smile were irresistible, as was his tapping,
which was delicate and clear. Buck or Time Steps were
inserted with skating steps or crossover steps on the
balls of the feet that looked like a jig, all while
he chatted and joked with the audience. Robinson danced
in split clog shoes, ordinary shoes with a wooden half-sole
and raised wooden heel. The wooden sole was attached
from the toe to the ball of the foot and left loose,
which allowed for greater flexibility and tonality.
In 1922, he married Fannie Clay who
became his business manager, secretary, and partner
in efforts to fight the barriers of racial prejudice.
A founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America,
Robinson was also named "Mayor of Harlem"
in 1933. Hailed as "The Dark Cloud of Joy"
on the Orpheum Circuit, he performed in vaudeville from
1914-1927 without a single season's layoff. Broadway
fame came with the all-black revue, Blackbirds of 1928,
in which he sang and danced "Doin' the New Low
Down." Success was instantaneous. He was hailed
as the greatest of all dancers by at least seven New
York newspapers. Brown Buddies (1930), Blackbirds of
1933, All in Fun (1940) and Memphis Bound (1945) followed.
The Hot Mikado (1939) marked Robinson's sixty-first
birthday, which he celebrated by dancing down Broadway,
one block for each year. Robinson turned to Hollywood
films in the thirties, a venue hitherto restricted to
blacks. His first film, Dixiana (1930) had a predominantly
white cast; Harlem is Heaven (1933) was the first all-black
film ever made.
Other films include Hooray For Love
(1935), In Old Kentucky (1935), The Big Broadcast of
1936 (1935), One Mile From Heaven (1937), By An Old
Southern River (1941), and Let's Shuffle (1941). Stormy
Weather (1943) featured Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway
and Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe. Robinson
and Shirley Temple teamed up in The Little Colonel (1935),
The Littlest Rebel (1935), Just Around the Corner (1938)
and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), in which he taught
the child superstar to tap dance. Claiming to have taught
tap dance to Eleanor Powell, Florence Mills, and Fred
Astaire, Robinson profoundly influenced the younger
tap dancers at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where he
also could be found gambling and shooting pool. Throughout
his lifetime, he was a member of many clubs and civic
organizations and an honorary member of police departments
in cities across the United States. His participation
in benefits is legendary and it is estimated that he
gave away well over one million dollars in loans and
charities. "To his own people, Robinson became
a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid
down iron taps," wrote Marshall Stearns. When Robinson
died in 1949, newspapers claimed that almost one hundred
thousand people turned out to witness the passing of
the funeral procession. The founding of the Copasetics
Club insured that his excellence would not be forgotten.
Constance Valis Hill
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