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Sat, 05.25.1878

Bill Robinson, pioneering dancer who crossed over

Bill Robinson

On this date in 1878, Bill Bojangles Robinson was born. He was an African American tap dancer and entertainer.

Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, VA, he was raised by his grandmother after being orphaned as a baby. As a child, Robinson danced for pennies from passersby on the streets. He left school before the age of eight and ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a stable boy at a racetrack. In Washington, he observed traveling minstrel shows and copied aspects of their movement, eventually creating a unique dance style characterized by highly rhythmic, syncopated, and complex footwork that appeared effortless, carefree, and buoyant.

He developed tap dance and soft-shoe routines (tap dances done in soft-soled shoes) in which he proved himself a master of improvisation, able to produce a seemingly unlimited range of percussive sounds. In 1892 Robinson debuted as a professional dancer in a minstrel show called "The South Before the War." He later teamed with George Cooper in a dance and comedy vaudeville routine. In 1908, Marty Forkins, a successful vaudeville agent, became his manager and helped Robinson become a vaudeville and musical theater star. Robinson performed in New York City in several Broadway musical revues, including "Blackbirds of 1928" and "Brown Buddies" (1930), "Blackbirds of 1933," and "The Hot Mikado" (1939). In 1930 he went to Hollywood, CA, where he appeared in 14 motion pictures.

His work with American child actor Shirley Temple in four motion pictures—"The Little Colonel" (1935), in which he memorably taught Temple his trademark stair dance; "The Littlest Rebel" (1935); "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (1938); and "Just Around the Corner" (1938) were particularly popular. Robinson later drew criticism for having portrayed racial stereotypes in his roles as grinning and acquiescent servants. His last motion-picture role was opposite African-American singer Lena Horne in the musical "Stormy Weather" (1943), which had an all-Black cast.

Bill Robinson was known for his skill and originality, and one of the first Black entertainers to achieve popularity among members of different races in the United States.

The Ghost Walks:
A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865-1910
Henry T. Sampson
Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ., 1988)

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