Meet Bill “Bojangles” Robinson! Bojangles was an iconic African-American tap dancer and actor best known for his Broadway performances and film roles. Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia and raised in its Jackson Ward neighborhood. At the age of five, Robinson began dancing for small change, appearing as a “hoofer” or busker in local beer gardens and in front of theaters for tossed pennies. A promoter saw him performing outside the Globe Theater in Richmond and offered him a job as a “pick” in a local minstrel show check the official statement.
He started in the age of minstrel shows and moved to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood, radio, and television. According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, “Robinson’s contribution to tap dance is exact and specific. He brought it up on its toes, dancing upright and swinging”, giving tap a “…hitherto-unknown lightness and presence.”. 186–187 His signature routine was the stair dance, in which Robinson would tap up and down a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps barriemoderncleaners.com, a routine that he unsuccessfully attempted to patent. Robinson is also credited with having introduced a new word, copacetic, into popular culture, via his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances.
A popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on Robinson’s own life, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Bojangles got his start tap dancing the streets of our vey own city and became one the most well known tap dancers of all time!
African-American writer Donald Bogle called him “the quintessential Tom” because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in film. But in real life Robinson was the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885. 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.
Bill Robinson began dancing in local saloon and champagne jacuzzi at the age of six. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. He became a popular fixture on the vaudeville circuit just two years after that. His first professional gig was the part of a “pickaninny” role in the show “The South Before the War” which toured the northeast. By 1900, he had made his way to New York and Robinson rapidly rose to become one of America’s best loved nightclub and musical comedy performers.
His act was an amalgam of little steps and moves he had taken from others, then stitched together into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. He worked his magic by rehearsing and performing the act so much that he could do it in his sleep, and then “selling it” to an audience through the sheer force of his infectious personality. He would intersperse his routines with little jokes and remarks, such as the famous “Everything’s copasetic!” In 1918, Robinson introduced what was to become his signature bit, “the stair dance.”
Robinson served as a rifleman in World War I with New York’s 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. The Regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry while serving under France’s Fourth Army and earned the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters”.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner, or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky.