Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a tap dancer and actor from 1878 through 1943, who was responsible for revolutionizing tap dancing and for bridging racial boundaries in the entertainment world of that time period. He was the best known and highest paid African-American entertainer in the first half of the 20th century.
Born in 1877 in Richmond, Virginia, Robinson was raised by his grandmother who was a former slave. He began dancing at a young age in local beer gardens and theaters for spare change. Over a period of years, and after a stint in the U.S. military, Robinson would eventually become the first African-American solo act in vaudeville, where he developed a unique style of tap dancing called “up on the toes.” In 1918, Robinson introduced the ground-breaking “Stair Dance” that would solidify his legacy as the “Father of Tapology.”
Robinson’s gift for entertainment appealed to a wide audience, regardless of race or social standing. He performed on Broadway in both African-American and white revues that were great successes. A talented actor as well as a dancer, Robinson was chosen to star with childhood actress Shirley Temple in a total of four films in the 1930s, where the couple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history. The last movie appearance he made in a starring role, 1943’s “Stormy Weather,” has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance.
Bill Robinson was a courageous trail-blazer in the arena of dance and entertainment in the early 20th century, who transcended racial prejudice and barriers in ways that had never happened before. He mentored dancers Ann Miller, Sammy Davis Jr., among others. His legacy of courage, generosity, and love live on today.