Read Lindy Hop in Harlem: The Role of Social Dancing to find out how dancing reflected Harlem's social climate.

 

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949)
Dancer

 

 
 
 

 


The Kennedy Center
ARTSEDGE
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership
Watch Robinson's famous step dance.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Bill Robinson began dancing in local saloons at the age of six. He became a popular fixture on the vaudeville circuit just two years after that. While still a child, he was given the nickname "Bojangles," although even Robinson himself was unsure of the origin of that moniker.

In 1905, Robinson forged a partnership—lifelong, it turned out—with agent Marty Forkins, who got the dancer a golden opportunity: the chance to develop a solo act. (African-American dancers of the time appeared exclusively in pairs.) Robinson made the most of it, touring the United States and Europe until the late 1920s.

Robinson took up residence in Harlem in 1928. That was the year he landed a role in the all-black musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which was staged by a white producer for white audiences. Robinson's popularity soared.

Tap-dancing high on his toes and moving his upper body with understated grace, Robinson displayed a lightness and finesse never seen before. He shunned the frantic style of his predecessors for a more elegant, precise form of tap.

Robinson's talent gave him entrée to two worlds—white entertainment and black—yet he was never completely accepted in either one. White audiences adored the films in which he co-starred with Shirley Temple or Will Rogers, but his commercially successful roles were modeled on racist stereotypes, such as that of the genial black servant. Though artistically satisfying, his few forays into black films—notably Harlem Is Heaven—didn't make him much money.

Robinson began performing at Harlem's Cotton Club in the mid-1930s. In 1939, he joined the Broadway cast of an African-American musical called Hot Mikado. The white establishment, meanwhile, cemented his celebrity status by naming him honorary mayor of Harlem—and mascot of the New York Giants baseball team. Many prominent African Americans, however, found these distinctions to be demeaning and paternalistic.

Despite the racial tension that dogged his career, Robinson revolutionized his art, conquered both stage and screen, and triumphed as a Harlem legend.


 

 

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He danced with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.
He was a frequent act at the Lafayette Theatre.
Robinson was a close friend and teacher of Florence Mills.
He headlined with musician Cab Calloway.
He was friends with actress Evelyn Preer.
James VanDerZee captured a memorable photograph of Robinson.

He appeared with the Eubie Blake Orchestra in Harlem Is Heaven.
He performed at Carl Van Vechten's mixed-race parties.
 
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