Bill Bojangles Robinson
What is known about the early life of Bill Bojangles Robinson is often shrouded in legend. Born Luther Robinson, it is said the boy Robinson took on his brother Bill’s name while Bill became Percy. Born in 1878, his parents died in infanthood and his grandmother raised him. Bojangles is a nickname that grew out of his happy-go-lucky personality.
By the age of eight, Bill had dropped out of school and began his dancing career. He worked first in beer gardens as a hoofer and went on to join traveling vaudeville shows. Through his teens, Bill Robinson crafted his skill in nightclubs and in musicals. Over the years, he built up a large following, black and white alike, that was amazed by his clever improvisation and personal charm.
One of the hallmarks of a Bill Robinson tap is the understated physicality of his routines. A renowned soft shoe tapper, Bill Robinson is most famous for his “stair dance” in which he proceeds to tap forward and backward, up and down a specially made staircase. Capable of running as fast backwards as most people can run forwards, he ran the 75 yard dash in 8.2 seconds, the audience was never aware of how hard he was working during his performance.
Bill Bojangles Robinson’s main contribution was helping to get “tap dance up on its toes.” While buck and wing style was prevalent during his time, Robinson danced on the balls of his feet. Though more physically grueling, it gave him the advantage of being able to execute a wider range of steps. Of all the performances Bill Robinson gave, he is most remembered in his films with Shirley Temple.
Bill Robinson the philanthropist was as famous as Bill Robinson the dancer. He paid to have a street light set up in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia so school children could safely cross the street. This earned him an engraved key to the city as well as a statue in his honor erected.
An extraordinary dancer, Bill Bojangles Robinson continued dancing through his 60’s before slowing down. At the age of 71 he died from heart failure. Although he made more money than most in his lifetime, he died broke as a result of his generosity and gambling debts. A collection was taken up to pay for a proper burial at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem and was attended by 32,000 people. Bill Robinson was laid to rest in Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.
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