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Robinson, Bill "Bojangles"

Robinson, Bill "Bojangles"

May 25, 1878
November 25, 1949


Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, perhaps the most famous of all African-American tap dancers, demonstrated an exacting yet light footwork that was said to have brought tap "up on its toes" from the flat-footed shuffling style prevalent in the previous era. Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, he was orphaned when both his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885; he and his brothers were subsequently reared by his grandmother, Bedilia Robinson.

Robinson gained his nickname, "Bojangles"possibly from the slang term jangle, meaning "to quarrel or fight"while still in Richmond. It was also in Richmond that Robinson is said to have coined the phrase "everything's copasetic," meaning "fine, better than all right." He ran away to Washington, D.C., earning nickels and dimes by dancing and singing, and then got his first professional job in 1892, performing in the "pickaninny" chorus (in vaudeville, a chorus of young African-American children performing as backup for the featured performer) in Mayme Remington's The South Before the War. When Robinson arrived in New York City around 1900, he challenged the tap dancer Harry Swinton, the star dancer in Old Kentucky, to a buck-dancing contest, and won.

From 1902 to 1914, Robinson teamed up with George W. Cooper. Bound by the "two-colored" rule in vaudeville, which restricted blacks to performing in pairs, Cooper and Robinson performed as a duo on the Keith and Orpheum circuits. They did not, however, wear the blackface makeup performers customarily used. Robinson, who carried a gold-plated revolver, was a gambler with a quick temper. He was involved in a series of off-stage scrapes, and it was allegedly his arrest for assault in 1914 that finally put an end to the partnership with Cooper.

After the split, Robinson convinced his manager, Marty Forkins, to promote him as a soloist. Forkins managed to book him at the Marigold Gardens Theater in Chicago by promising its star and producer, Gertrude Hoffman, Robinson's services as a dance instructor. In this way Robinson launched his solo career, and he eventually became one of the first black performers to headline at New York's prestigious Palace Theatre.

Hailed as "the Dark Cloud of Joy" on the Orpheum circuit, Robinson performed in vaudeville from 1914 to 1927. Onstage, Robinson's open face, flashing eyes, infectious smile, easygoing patter, and air of surprise at what his feet were doing made him irresistible to audiences. His tapping was delicate, articulate, and intelligible. He usually wore a hat cocked to one side, and often exited with a Chaplinesque waddle, or with another signature step, a kind of syncopated "camel walk" (which would later be called the "moonwalk" when it was used by pop star Michael Jackson). Robinson always danced in split-clog shoes, in which the wooden sole was attached from the toe to the ball of the foot and the rest was left loose, allowing for greater flexibility and tonality. Dancing upright and swinging to clean six-bar phrases, followed by a two-bar break, Robinson set new standards of performance, despite the fact that he invented few new steps.

In 1922 Robinson married Fannie Clay, who became his business manager and secretary. (The marriage was his second: in 1907, he had married Lena Chase, from whom he was divorced in 1922.) After twenty-one years he divorced Fannie and married a young dancer, Elaine Plaines.

Broadway fame came with an all-black revue, Blackbirds of 1928, in which he sang "Doin' the New Low Down" while dancing up and down a flight of five steps. Success was immediate: Robinson's performance was acclaimed by the major New York newspapers, and he was heralded by several as the greatest of all tap dancers. The dance Robinson performed in Blackbirds developed into his signature "stair dance"; notable for the clarity of Robinson's taps and for its unusual tonalitieseach step yielded a different pitchRobinson's appealing showmanship made it seem effortless. Brown Buddies (1930) was kept alive by Robinson's performance, as were Blackbirds of 1933, The Hot Mikado (1939), All in Fun (1940), and Memphis Bound (1945). Largely in recognition of his Broadway success, Robinson was named an honorary "Mayor of Harlem" by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In 1939 he celebrated his sixty-first birthday by tapping down Broadway, one block for each year.

Robinson turned to Hollywood, a venue largely closed to blacks, in the 1930s. His films included Dixiana (1930), which had a predominantly white cast, and Harlem Is Heaven (1933), with an all-black cast. Robinson also appeared in the films Hooray for Love (1935), In Old Kentucky (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), One Mile from Heaven (1937), Road Demon (1938), Up the River (1938), By an Old Southern River (1941), and Let's Shuffle (1941); in a newsreel about the 1939 World's Fair in Chicago, It's Swing Ho! Come to the Fair; and in a short, Broadway Brevities (1934). But of all his many stage and film performances, those that brought him the most fame were his appearances with the child star Shirley Temple, in The Littlest Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Just Around the Corner (1938), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). In 1943, the all-black film Stormy Weather, with Robinson, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham's dance troupe, met with some success.

A founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America, Robinson performed in thousands of benefits over the course of his career, and he made generous contributions to charities and individuals. However, Robinson's career had peaked in the late 1930s, and when he died in 1949 he was in debt. According to contemporary accounts, nearly a hundred thousand people turned out to watch his funeral procession; the numbers testify to the esteem in which he was still held by his community and by the audiences who loved him. The founding of the Copasetics Club in the year that Robinson died ensured that his brilliance as a performer would not be forgotten.

See also Musical Theater; Tap Dance

Bibliography

Fletcher, Tom. 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business. New York: Burdge, 1954. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1984.

Haskins, Jim, and N. R. Mitgang. Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1994.

Vered, Karen Orr. "White and Black in Black and White: Management of Race and Sexuality in the Coupling of Child Star Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson." Velvet Light Trap (Spring 1997): 52.

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