bill "bojangles" robinson -- 12/18/15

Today's selection -- from What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert. As shown in the video below, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's "stair dance" was an entertainment marvel of the early twentieth century, and one that he actively defended against performers who tried to emulate him. Robinson is widely considered the finest tap dancer to ever practice the art:

"In 1922, just after the young [jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong] moved from New Orleans to Chicago and just before he al­most single-handedly transformed jazz into a soloist's art, Armstrong caught [Bill 'Bojangles'] Robinson's act. What struck him first was how the dancer was dressed: 'That man was so sharp he was bleeding.' In his dressing room, Robinson kept his suits spaced one inch apart, with matching shoes underneath. His favorite indoor sport, his wife once reported, was brushing his clothes with a whisk broom. For each performance, he changed outfits, and he always kept a towel in the wings so the audience wouldn't see him sweat. ...

"There was more to Robinson's act than carefree abandon. A key part of it originated back in 1918, when Robinson saw some friends in the audience at the Palace and danced down the stairs to greet them. Thus was his stair dance born, or so he said sometimes. Other times, he said it came to him while he was dreaming of a different palace, in England. In that dream, he stood at the bottom of a staircase, waiting to be knighted. 'I didn't like the idea of just walking up,' he recalled, 'so I thought I'd dance up. I danced up the stairs to the throne, got my badge, and danced right down again.' He said that his best steps always came to him in dreams. These stories are probably apocryphal, which isn't to say that they hold no truth. Professional black and white dancers had been clog­ging on stairs since at least the 1880s. King Rastus Brown claimed that Robinson stole the idea from him, though Brown almost certainly stole it from somebody else. Notwithstanding such antecedents, Robinson was viciously possessive. There's many a tale about what he did to those who dared use stairs: stop the act mid-performance, slap the offender, pull out a pistol. Once, when the dancer Eddie Rector replaced him in a show, Robinson sent him a cablegram warning him not to do the stair dance, on penalty of death. His effort to protect his claim was largely futile. When he attempted to secure a patent on the stair routine, the U.S. Patent Office denied the application.

"In the early years, he danced up and down stage stairs. Soon, he had a portable staircase built. The stairs were central to his act, his vaudeville gimmick, but they must have been important to him for another reason. They magnified the essential strengths of his dancing. The staircase was symmetrical. It was two staircases joined back to back, a terraced pyramid, five steps up, five steps down. Each step was just large enough to accom­modate Robinson's two feet, and the connected top steps served as a platform. The entire staircase rose to the height of Robinson's ribs, and a triangle of empty space underneath it made for a resonant drum. Upon these steps, Robinson could portion out his own. These were mostly time steps, three-and-a-break steps, and what the stairs did for Robin­son was reveal how he played with the structure of the music through how he played with the structure of the staircase.

"He would become known for bringing tap 'up on the toes.' In contrast to the fiat-footed style of dancers such as King Rastus Brown, Robinson carried his weight over the balls of his feet and drew his car­riage up from there in an erect line. It's as if he were trying to balance a glass of water on his head, as if he had been studying Clog Dancing Made Easy. His arms swung more freely than a dagger's, but for the most part, he kept his feet neatly underneath him, which is why his dancing fit so well on the stairs. The small space emphasized the extraordinary effi­ciency of his movements, his impeccable control. The height gave his floor-bound dance a vertical dimension, ampliflying his rhythmic wit. The staircase was an extension of his instinct to dramatize. It used the eye to direct the ear. From the back of a theater, you could perceive that it was an instrument, each stair of which rang a slightly different note. The tonal distinctions were subtle, but then, Robinson was a subtle dancer.

"The Aiston Shoe Company in Chicago made his clogs special order, twenty to thirty pairs a year. If one sole split, he discarded the pair -- using shoes with different levels of wear would have compromised the perfect balance of his sound. He liked to challenge people to go beneath the stage and try to distinguish his right from his left -- an easy task with many dancers, impossible with him. Robinson wore out shoes by danc­ing often, not by dancing hard. Wood met wood, two equals. It was a warm sound, precise but with a soft center. His taps were even, measured. 'Indescribably liquid,' wrote the critic Robert Benchley, 'like a brook flowing over pebbles.' The Chicago Daily News compared them not just with 'the steady beat of a racehorse's feet,' but with quail's wings; not with firecrackers, but with 'firecrackers heard in the distance.' Audi­ences leaned in to listen. ...

"The dance thrills, but not with acrobatics or speed or even inspired rhythms. For much of the number, Robinson's rhythms are metronomic. He can be plain. But you can trust him. You can relax. The stairs are a stunt that conceals its daring. As generations of imitators would learn to their grief, the properties of the staircase that magnified Robinson's mastery equally magnify the slightest imperfection. Robinson's timing, his metronome sense, was legendary. Dancers tell a story in which he had his musicians cut out for three and a half minutes while he continued dancing. After the allotted time, the musicians came back in, cued by a metronome that Robinson couldn't hear. He was exactly on beat."


Brian Seibert


What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2015 by Brain Seibert


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