Today in History – May 25

Legendary jazz tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born on May 25, 1878, in
Richmond, Virginia. His given name was Luther, but he despised it and appropriated that of his younger brother, William. An extraordinary performer and synthesizer of the tap tradition, Robinson is also credited with one major innovation in this American art form: transforming its flat footwork into dancing up on the toes, which gave tap “a hitherto-unknown lightness and presence.”1 Many steps Robinson perfected with his trademark clarity, precision, and elegance, including the famous “stair dance,” remain part of the tap repertoire today.

Portrait of Bill Robinson. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Jan. 25, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Orphaned in early childhood and unwanted by his grandmother, a survivor of slavery and a strict Baptist who forbade dancing, Robinson nevertheless began dancing and singing as a young child for nickels and dimes on Richmond street-corners. He ran away to Washington, D.C., and spent some years dancing in local beer-gardens and surviving on odd jobs before breaking into the relatively new theatrical genre called “vaudeville,” which showcased dancers, singers, comedians, and actors in a series of short performances. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Robinson was earning top dollar on the vaudeville circuit and in nightclubs as one of the very few black dancers who was permitted to perform as a soloist. In 1928 he burst onto Broadway with sensational success in the all-black revue Blackbirds of 1928. Other Broadway triumphs followed.

By the 1930s, motion pictures and radio had usurped vaudeville’s popularity and Robinson moved with the times. He went to Hollywood in 1932 and appeared in some sixteen films, most famously opposite Shirley Temple. Stormy Weather (1943), with Lena Horne, provided him a rare opportunity to appear in an African-American production. Although his film career brought him even greater prominence during this period, Robinson also continued to work in the theater. He was featured in the highly acclaimed Hot Mikado, staged at the 1939 World’s Fair, in which a critic for Theatre Arts described his dancing:

He does not sing, or even swing, with his voice but with his feet. Never has shoe leather beaten out such a variety of intricate patterns. Never … has one note been made to sing and soar, to whisper and to laugh, in such astonishingly complex rhythm.

A quick-tempered and competitive man, a perfectionist well aware of his own immense artistic gifts, Robinson chafed at and challenged the oppressive racial norms of his era, gambled recklessly, and carried a gold-plated revolver that no one doubted he was prepared to use. He celebrated his sixty-first birthday by dancing down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street. As his seventieth birthday approached, his dancing abilities, like his popularity, barely waned. At Robinson’s death in 1949, thousands passed by his body as it lay in state in Harlem, where he had long since been deemed honorary mayor. Black and white, high and low, alike paid tribute to the man’s professional genius and personal generosity.

Portrait of Bill Robinson. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Jan. 25, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Several films included in the collection Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures demonstrate the style of dancing Robinson excelled at.

Unabashedly racist, the comedy Fights of Nations relied on both stereotype and slapstick. “Part 2” opens with a sword fight between three kilted Scots, and moves on to a New York City dance hall. Between brawls, viewers are treated to a tap dance, performed by a character known as “The Bully.”

Tap Dance Sequence from Fights of Nations. Part 2 of 3, second film. Billy Bitzer, camera; United States: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1907. Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

The Library of Congress presents such materials as part of the record of the past, reflecting the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views they express.