Influential Dancers: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson - NJADS
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Influential Dancers: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

 October 25, 2023      ancaster

Dance history is a captivating journey into the heart and soul of human expression. It serves as a mirror reflecting the cultural, social, and artistic evolution of our world. In this exploration of the past, we uncover the stories of remarkable individuals who left a lasting mark on the world of dance. Dance, in all its forms, has always been a vital element of human culture. Whether through ritual, activism, celebration, storytelling, or personal expression, dance is a crucial piece within the fabric of our history.

We start this series with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose extraordinary talent and pioneering spirit have left an enduring legacy in the realm of tap dance. Tap dance has deep cultural roots in both African and European traditions. By understanding its history, we can appreciate the rich blend of influences that have shaped it into what it is today.

Who was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson?

Bill Robinson was an incredible performer. He could sing and he could act but he was best known for his tap abilities and the influence he had on the style. He began as a vaudeville performer and despite racism and segregation would go on to perform on Broadway and in Hollywood!

Robinson was actually born Luther Robinson in May 1878. He was raised by his grandmother after the age of seven when he lost both his parents. He had a brother William Robinson who he managed to convince to give up his name to himself since he did not like the name Luther. Bojangles was a nickname he received in his childhood and there is still debate on the reason why.

His Career

Bill Robinson began his performance career at the age of 5! By 9 he was traveling in a troupe. His teenage years were spent travelling as a comedian and musical performer in Black theatres for Black audiences. He would begin a solo act and become one of the first Black performers to break vaudevilles two-colour-rule which forbade Black solo acts. This was a time when performers white or Black would perform in blackface however, this would not be the way Robinson would perform. He then would take some time off performing to serve in World War I. 

in 1928 he would perform on Broadway in Blackbirds, for an all-white audience. Here he would showcase his popular stair dance with a very specific tap style to make sure each step had its own percussive pitch.  Robinson would become the first Black performer to headline a Broadway performance in 1940 for the show All in Fun. He continued making history as the first Black performer in a Hollywood film and starred alongside many famous actors such as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and multiple tap performances with the young Shirley Temple. In their movie The Little Colonel, they would perform a modified version of his stair dance together.  With only 7 days to teach and film his complex and unique choreography Robinson realized it wasn’t enough time to teach such a young dancer something so complex, so he modified it by mimicking some of her own steps, so it looked like she was mimicking him!

Robinson’s Tap Style

Robinson’s stair dance involved a selection of complex steps going backwards and forwards up and down stairs. This was also a time where tap was more commonly performed more flatfooted with shuffled steps. Robinson however was known for “bringing tap up on its toes”. With his split-clog wooden shoes, his footwork was light and precise with incredible control. This allowed him to control his rhythm and stop time with his steps. He was known to dance upright and swinging, involving the toes and the balls of his feet for most of his footwork. This created new standards for tap making it the style we know today.  

His Legacy

Robinson’s legacy expands beyond his dance. Robinson worked hard to fight racism and was known for supporting many charities, benefits and individuals either through financials or performance. He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He was the cofounder of the baseball team The Harlem Stars which, a year later would be renamed as The New York Black Yankees when they would come to play in the Negro National League until the MLB would finally become desegregated.  He held a world record for running backwards from 1922-1977. As a huge fan of the Yankees, he proved he could run backwards around the bases faster than some of the players could even move forward! Bill Robinson was named the “Honorary Mayor of Harlem” for his work and his impact in his community and National Tap Dance Day would be honoured on his birthday May 25th.