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Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949)

By Constance Valis Hill  

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the most famous and beloved of tap dancers in the first half of the twentieth century, was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia. His father, Maxwell Robinson, was a machinist and his mother, Maria Robinson, was a choir singer. Both parents died in 1885 and 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 he invented the phrase "Everything's Copasetic," meaning tip-top, first-rate. 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 around 1900, he challenged the In Old Kentucky star tap dancer Harry Swinton to a Buck-dancing contest and won. From 1902 to1914, 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 the blackface makeup that white and black performers customarily used. In the first decade of the twentieth century, it was still common for performers to get laughs by using racial and ethnic epithets (Mick and Tad for the Irish; Sheeny, Kike, or Goniff to Jews, Coon or Nigger when referring to African Americans). When ordinances were passed in Boston and New York City banning such epithets from the stage, it is believed that this was due, in part, to Cooper and Robinson’s singing of a song written by Chris Smith called “Yoi Yoi Yoi, Mary Ann” in a heavily burlesqued, supposedly Jewish accent.

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 with Cooper. 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 to 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 1930s, a venue hitherto off-limits to blacks. His first film, Dixiana (1930), had a predominantly white cast. Harlem is Heaven (1932), one of the earliest all-black films, was supposedly based on Robinson’s life. 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. Having taught tap dance to Eleanor Powell, Florence Mills, and Fred Astaire, Robinson also had a profound influence on 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. (Jazz Dance, 188) When Robinson died on November 25, 1949, newspapers claimed that almost one-hundred thousand people turned out to witness the passing of the funeral procession. People lined the streets of New York in silent tribute as his body moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. The founding of the Copasetics Club, seven days after Robinson was buried, on December 5, 1949, insured that his excellence would not be forgotten. Robinson’s style of 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.


Constance Valis Hill has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University; M.A. in Dance Research and Reconstruction from City College of the University of New York; Bronze Certificate from the International Society of Ballroom Dance; Neutral and a Character Mask certificate from Pierre LeFevre at the Juilliard School. She has worked internationally as a teacher, choreographer, director, and mask specialist, including collaborations with the French playwright Eugene Ionesco; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda; Romanian director Liviu Ciulei; and Toni Morrison on her play Dreaming Emmett. Her writings have appeared in numerous dance periodicals and edited anthologies. Her book, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award; and hermost recent book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010), for which shereceived the Tap Preservation Award from the American Tap Dance Foundation, wassupported by grants from the John D. Rockefeller and John Simon Guggenheimfoundations. As a Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College, sheteaches courses in dance history, performance theory, jazz studies,choreography on camera, and feminist performance; and is working with hercolleagues to establish a black studies core curriculum.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mitgang, N. R., and James Haskell. Mr. Bojangles: The  Biography of Bill Robinson. New York: W. Morrow, 1988.

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

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