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Every year on the 25th of May the USA celebrates National Tap Dance Day. Over the course of the years this day has become an important date for tap dancers all over the world to celebrate their love of this incredible American art form.
The idea of a National Tap Dance Day was first presented to the US congress in February of 1989, but it wasn’t formally written into US-American law until that November. The first official observance of National Tap Dance Day was celebrated in 1989, making this year’s event the 30th National Tap Dance Day.
If this is the first you are hearing of National Tap Dance Day, you might be asking yourself ‘but why the 25th of May?’ and the answer to that is simple:
Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson
Robinson is revered by the tap dance community for his many accomplishments and contributions to significant events in tap dance history, and May 25th is his birthday.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1878 as Luther Robinson, Bojangles’ tap dance career features the very many steps on the ladder of show business it took to rise to international recognition, despite the racist rules and regulations that were designed to limit such a feat. The very fact Robinson succeeded is testament to his enduring legacy as one of tap dance’s greats.
He started his professional career working as a pick in Mayme Remington’s chorus touring a show at the age of 12 called The South Before the War. From the minstrel show, by 1898 Robinson had arrived in New York and got a job working at Minors Theatre in the Bowery. He worked his way up the ranks of white vaudeville by dancing, but had trouble coming up against the “two colored” rule which saw him leave New York for Boston before returning to partner up with George W. Cooper, a well known black vaudevillian performing on the white Keith circuit in 1903.
They would work together for the next 12 years, becoming a great success on both the Keith and Orpheum circuits, even travelling to London where they dazzled audiences. Robinson’s dancing however, was severely restricted during this time as the act was primarily comedy. They should be recognised during this time for their fight against racism because they did not appear in the degrading convention of blackface.
By 1915 his act with Cooper was dissolving, and it is then that Robinson achieved an enormous feat for a black performer. Despite the “two-colored” rule which restricted him to working in a pair, Robinson was taken on by Marty Forkins, an independent theatrical manager in the Midwest, to work solo therefore becoming the first black solo act on white vaudeville.
Through gigs at Henderson’s in Coney island, and stints entertaining the troops during World War I, by December 1917 Robinson was working both solo and as part of an act with Cooper on the Orpheum circuit. In1918 he played the Palace Theatre in New York, the top of the top for the Keith and Orpheum circuits, introducing the dance for which he would become known, the Stair Dance.
There are differing stories about the where the idea for this dance came from, with King Rastus Brown maintaining that Robinson stole the act from him. What is undeniable though, is that this is the dance Robinson made famous.
His dance was unique for its tones and his style of tapping ‘up on the toes’ as Marshall Stearns labels his chapter dedicated to Robinson in his book Jazz Dance. Robinson’s stair case was constructed with tone in mind, each of the five steps making the triangle formed of a different thickness of wood. It was the perfect flight to stardom allowing Robinson to showcase his effortless time steps and beautiful rhythms.
“Listen with your eyes closed, and it becomes an almost symphonic composition of sounds. What the eye sees is the tawdry American convention; what the ear hears is the priceless African heritage.” —Alain Locke quoted in (Valis-Hill, 2010, p.121).
Robinson did not become well-known to New York Theatre critics until he was fifty years old when vaudeville was fading and Broadway shows were becoming more influential. In 1928 Robinson was hired as extra entertainment to spice up Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds which was struggling at the box office. He was to sing “Doin’ the New Low Down” and dance his Stair Dance, his immediate success was obvious from the glowing reviews he received.
From there Hollywood beckoned and Robinson appeared in the 1929 film, Dixiana, and later the first all-black cast film ever made, Harlem is Heaven, in 1932. He only became hot property with film studios though when he was paired with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel in 1935. This was another breakthrough as Robinson and Temple were the first interracial tap dancing couple in film history. They made four films together and were the only longstanding partnership in Robinson’s film career, in which he made fourteen films.
He faced criticism for the fact his characters in these films mostly perpetuated racist stereotypes, relegating Robinson to the role of faithful servant berated at times by his masters. Two of his films however did break away from these stereotypes: Stormy Weather and One Mile From Heaven.
Robinson reached the pinnacle of his career in1939 when, after appearing in several Cotton Club shows, he was a hit in the Hot Mikado at the New York World’s Fair at the age of 61, after which his star slowly began to fade.
Despite his contentious personality often creating friction, Robinson affected the lives of many, teaching several well-known tap stars and influencing young dancers at Harlem’s Hoofers Club. It should be no surprise that with the friendships he forged in high places, and his overwhelming influence on the showbiz world that anywhere from one hundred thousand to one million people are reported to have lined the streets to observe his funeral procession when he passed away in 1949 at the age of 71. His death brought about the formation of the Copasetic Club, named after his famous phrase:
—meaning everything is ok.
So, today the tap community remembers that everything really is Copasetic, as we celebrate our art form and remember the man who brought tap “up on the toes, dancing upright and swinging” .(Stearns, 1968, p. 187).
Maybe do a little Shim Sham in his honour, I for one will be celebrating by dancing one of his dances passed down to me through the American Tap Dance Foundation, so if you need me I’ll be Doin’ the New Low Down!
Stearns, M. & Stearns, J. (1968). Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Da Capo Press.
Valis Hill, C. (2010). Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Library of Congress. Bill Bojangles Robinson [biography]: Biography Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress. Retrieved May 24, 2019, from http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.music.tdabio.154/default.html