LaVaughn Robinson, a world-renowned tap dancer, never took a formal dance class in his life. Rather, he learned his distinctive "Philadelphia style" of dance on the streets, trading taps on corners with fellow amateurs and picking up moves from professional tappers he admired. From this informal schooling, Robinson built one of the longest and most accomplished careers in dance, becoming a jazz tap sensation on the club circuit in the 1940s and 1950s. Later, as a longtime faculty member at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Robinson helped revive tap as an art form by training generations of dancers in the Philly style he had made famous. Well into his seventies, the indomitable Robinson continued to delight audiences with his rhythmic, fast-paced tapping.
LaVaughn Robinson was born on February 9, 1927, in southern Philadelphia, the youngest of fourteen children. At age seven, his mother, herself a fine tap dancer, though no professional, taught him his first time step in the kitchen of the family's row house—and she made him practice it again and again. Before long, he was tapping on street corners along South Street, a popular spot for "hoofers," as tap dancers were known, in Depression-era Philadelphia.
At that time, South Street was bustling with jazz clubs and variety theaters, and it was a mecca for young tap dancers who came to cut their teeth in street-corner competitions. South Street had a hierarchy of corners, with the intersection at Broad Street as the pinnacle. The dancer's goal was to move up to the next street corner until he reached Broad. Sometimes the young tappers danced to the tunes drifting out of a nearby club, but often they lacked musical accompaniment, so they would rig up a "tramp band" of washboard, tub, and kazoo. South Street attracted so many dancers that traffic often came to a standstill. The young dancers wore shoe-shine boxes around their necks so that when police came along to shoo them away, they could pretend to be working.
It was here that as a teenager Robinson began "busking"—tap dancing on street corners and in clubs and bars for spare change. On a good day, he could earn as much as $35 to $40, a small fortune for the time. He turned over his earnings to his mother to help support his large family.
Robinson imitated the moves of his fellow buskers and of the professionals in South Street's many clubs. He was influenced especially by Bill Bailey, the brother of the singer and actress Pearl Bailey. When Bailey performed at the Latin Casino nightclub on South Street, he would invite Robinson and his friends into the theater to watch the show, and sometimes he would come outside to see their performances. Robinson also emulated Teddy Hale, borrowing his quick, rhythmic, and continuous style of tapping.
In Rusty E. Frank's Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dancers and Their Stories, 1900-1955, Robinson reflected on his early days on the streets of Philadelphia: "I think I am one of the last of the street dancers. During the time that we were doin' it, we were the last of the street performers. One of the best things I really got out of it was the knack of learnin' to dance. And it was fun."
After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School, Robinson completed a stint in the U.S. Army. He began working professionally as a tap dancer in 1945, teaming up with childhood friends Howard Blow, Eddie Sledge, and his longest-running partner, Henry Meadows. He toured the nation, performing in acts such as the "Dancing Dictators" and the "Dancing Jets." Robinson appeared on stage with notables such as Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane during the 1950s and early 1960s. This was the golden age of tap.
Robinson became known for his distinctive Philly style of tapping, which was marked by fast, rhythmic patterns and close-to-the-floor footwork. According to John F. Morrison of the Philadelphia Daily News, Robinson described it as "[m]y style, and the style of the Philadelphia tap dancers, is ‘Eastern.’ That means we keep our feet low to the ground, and use loose feet and angles. That's opposed to the movie-picturey California style, like Astaire, where there are lots of big arms and hands." Morrison noted that the Pew Fellowship for the Arts said that "[w]atching LaVaughn Robinson dance, you see his arms tracing great invisible arcs in the air as his feet clatter like chattering teeth on an icy December day."
Robinson often danced with no musical accompaniment, as he had on the corner of South and Broad streets—in fact, he considered this the purest form of tapping. Instead, he created his own music with his tapping. According to Gayle Ronan Sims of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robinson told his students, "Tap is a self-creating art….It is highly individualistic, and each dancer differs from the other in a way which is not matched by any other form of dance. It is intricate and very free. Tap comes from the mind."
During the late 1960s and 1970s, the jazz tap that Robinson and his partners performed declined in popularity, and many dancers hung up their tap shoes. Robinson, like other performers, took on menial jobs to get by, but he never stopped dancing. After living in Boston for a time, he returned to Philadelphia, where he gave private lessons in his studio.
In 1982 Robinson accepted a position with the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, now the University of the Arts, where he built one of the first academic tap programs in the country. He became a mainstay of the university, teaching generations of students the Philly style that he had made famous and helping to revive interest in tap as a serious art form. Robinson continued to perform as well, forming a duo with student Germaine Ingram, whom he danced with for more than two decades. Together, they were considered the "Fred and Ginger" of Philadelphia.
Though Robinson was humble about his achievements, he received many accolades for his work. In 1989 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a "national treasure," awarding him a National Heritage Fellowship. He also received a Choreographer's Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pew Fellowship for the Arts, and two Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Apprenticeship Awards. In 2000 he received Pennsylvania's Artist of the Year Award from Governor Tom Ridge.
Robinson retired from the University of the Arts in 2005 with the title "Distinguished Professor." A Philadelphian to the end, he was quoted by Sims as saying, "I'm sure heaven is a better, beautiful place, but I would not leave Philadelphia to go to heaven." Robinson died of heart failure at the age of eighty on January 22, 2008, in Philadelphia.
At a Glance …
Born LaVaughn Robinson on February 9, 1927, in Philadelphia, PA; died January 22, 2008, in Philadelphia, PA; married Edna, 1950; children: LaVaughn Robinson Jr., Gregory Robinson, and Shelton Robinson. Military service: U.S. Army.
Career: Tap performer in clubs and theaters, 1940s-70s; private dance instructor, 1980s; University of the Arts (formerly the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts), professor of dance, 1982-2005.
Awards: National Heritage Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1989; Pew Fellowship for the Arts, 1992; Pennsylvania's Artist of the Year Award, 2000; Hoofer Award, American Tap Dance Association, 2004; Flo-Bert Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005; Tradition in Tap Award, 2005; Choreographer's Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts; two Apprenticeship Awards, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts.
Frank, Rusty E., Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dancers and Their Stories, 1900-1955, Morrow, 1990.
New York Times, February 6, 2008.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 28, 2008.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 27, 2008.
The Telegraph (London), February 8, 2008.
"LaVaughn Robinson," Philadelphia Folklore Project,http://www.folkloreproject.org (accessed June 12, 2008).
"LaVaughn Robinson, 2004 Hoofer Award Recipient," American Tap Dance Foundation,http://www.atdf.org/awards/robinson.html (accessed June 12, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
"Robinson, LaVaughn." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-lavaughn
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