Bates, Peg Leg 1907–
Peg Leg Bates 1907–
Where some performers may have settled into becoming a novelty act, Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tap dancer, has risen far above that. A spirited performer whose talent and professionalism have won him fans throughout the world, Bates has proven you can go just as far in the field of dance with one leg as you can with two. The victim of a cottonseed mill accident, Bates refused to let the loss of a leg step on his dreams. “I was a dancer before I lost my leg,” he said in the documentary about his life, The Dancing Man, “and I still wanted to dance.”
Clayton Bates was born in Fountain Inn, South Carolina in 1907, to a sharecropper and his wife. At the age of four, his parents divorced and Bates and his mother moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where she got a job as a nurse for a white family. As a young boy Bates worked in the cotton fields of South Carolina, a job he hated. He also danced in the local barber shop for some change until his mother found out and dragged him home. She thought the white men of the shop who were laughing and hollering were making fun of her son. Bates returned, however. He loved to dance, and although he earned only a few bits, he loved the money.
When Bates was eleven he wanted to go to work in a local cottonseed mill to get out of working in the cotton fields which, as he said in The Dancing Man, “wasn’ t 9 to 5, it was can to can’ t.” His mother denied his request because he was too young to work in a factory. Bates kept on pleading until his mother finally relented. His job was to climb to the top of a pile of cottonseed and push it so that it would flow into the conveyor. “I didn’ t know the job,” he recalled in Black Dance in America. The second day on the job, he “caved in this pile of seed and slid down with it. It slid me right into the conveyor and I hit the auger, which crushes the seed into meal. In that way, I lost my left leg and two fingers off my right hand.”
At that time in South Carolina blacks were not welcome in most hospitals, so Bates was taken back to his house where his leg was amputated at the knee on his mother’ s kitchen table. Not long after his wounds healed, Bates’ s uncle made him a wooden peg leg. Determined not to feel sorry for himself and frustrated that people pitied him, Bates took the peg leg and ran. As he’ s quoted in Black Dance in America, “I put that leg on, and I used
At a Glance…
Born Clayton Bates, October 1907, in Fountain Inn, SC; married Alice (died 1987); children: Melodye Bates-Holden.
Tap dancer. Lost his leg in cottonseed mill accident, 1918; began dancing in amateur shows in Greenville, SC, 1920s; joined Eddie Leonard’s “Dashing Dinah” company, 1926; joined “Blackbirds of 1928” touring revue, 1928; toured United States and abroad, 1930s and 1940s; appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other television programs, 1950s-1970s; opened Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, NY, 1951; sold resort and retired from performing, 1989; inspirational speaker, 1989–.
Awards: Honored by New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day, 1994.
Addresses: Home –East Hurley, New York.
to walk and run five miles a day, jumping over ditches, way out in the woods by myself.” Within a year and a half after the accident Bates was walking and dancing with his peg leg. Soon, everyone he knew, even his mother, began to call him Peg Leg.
After running away with some traveling shows, which always closed shortly after he joined, Bates got a chance to join Eddie Leonard’ s “Dashing Dinah” company, which toured the country. When they reached New York, Leonard got Bates a spot at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem where Lew Leslie saw him and hired him to appear in his show, “Blackbirds of 1928” on Broadway. Again Bates was able to tour the country and experienced first hand the racial divisions that existed in the United States at that time. While performing in Washington, D.C., in 1932, Bates had to perform in blac face minstrel paint so the audience would think he was a white man. The show eventually traveled to Paris where they played for 22 weeks at the world famous Moulin Rouge.
Upon returning to the United States, as Bates recalled in The Dancing Man, he wore an artificial leg when his ship arrived in South Carolina. His mother, who was waiting to meet her son at the dock, passed right by him. “I guess you know what happened to that artificial leg,” he joked. The reason Mrs. Bates did not recognize her son was that the peg leg had become as much a part of him as his other leg, or his arms, or his face. By 1936 Bates had 13 different peg legs, one to match every color of suit he owned. In 1938 Bates headlined at the Cotton Club in New York for the first time and also played shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and other big clubs around the country, touring with reviews as well as with the orchestras of Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, and Duke Ellington.
Bates qualified as a certified star with a unique style of tap dancing a two-legged man could not duplicate. On television shows such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” which he appeared on 22 times, Bates often participated in “challenge dances” with another dancer. “I depend on novelty steps a two-legged man couldn’ t do,” he’ s quoted as saying in Black Dance in America. “In one routine I leap five and a half feet in the air and make a complete turn. If I’ m in good trim I can leap as tall as I am, five feet eleven.” Another dance step popular with audiences was Bates’ s Jet Plane. He would run halfway across the stage, fly through the air, and land on his peg leg, continuing to bounce on the peg leg as the orchestra punctuated each hop with a blast of music. These steps were not without some degree of physical pain, however. As the dancer and one-time manager of the Apollo Theater, Charles “Honi” Coles recounted in Harlem Heyday, “There were times when Peg would sit in his dressing room and literally cry with the pain he experienced from his dance routines, but it never stopped him from performing them.”
While playing the famed Grossingers Resort in upstate New York, Bates noticed there were no black people among the guests. Realizing that blacks did not have a Catskill Mountain retreat to call their own, Bates decided to open one. In 1951 he and his wife, Alice, opened the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, New York. For nearly 40 years, Bates would greet the guests as they arrived and performed at the resort’ s night club. Ironically, as racial barriers were broken throughout the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, businesses like the Bates resort suffered. Integration meant blacks could go to white-owned hotels and resorts, thus drastically lowering attendance at black-owned clubs. Bates leased the resort for others to run following the death of his wife in 1987. “She was the brains of the business,” he recalled to Jet. He eventually sold it.
Although he no longer dances as he once did, Peg Leg was still in demand in the 1990s. Sometimes for events like National Tap Dance Day in New York, but more often for speaking to young people, Bates inspired people never to give up no matter what life throws their way. “I tell them to learn as fast as they can, as much as they can,” he told Mel Tapley of The Amsterdam News. Bates occasionally returned to the stage as well, including a special production of “This Joint is Jumpin”’ in New York in 1995. Although his performing days were mostly behind him, Bates continued to inspire and give back to the fans who had praised and encouraged him. For his standard closing, in an emotion-filled voice, Bates told the audience each night, “You have made a certain one-legged dancer very very happy. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.”
Haskins, James, Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1990.
Malone, Jacqui, Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Schiffman, Jack, Harlem Heyday, Prometheus Books, 1984.
Slide, Anthony, Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Green-wood Press, 1994.
Amsterdam News, August 27, 1994, p. 23; October 15, 1994, p. 30.
Jet, November 14, 1994, p. 60.
Library Journal, January 1993, p. 179.
School Library Journal, October 1992, p. 65.
(video) The Dancing Man: Peg Leg Bates, a film by Dave Davidson, Hudson West Productions and South Carolina Educational Television, distributed by PBS video, Alexandria, VA, 1992.