Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bill Robinson/Bojangles

The other night I was watching one of my favorite Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies,  Swing Time, on good old TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  The film has a lot of good dance routines, but the one I always want to watch and find fascinating is the "Bojangles of Harlem" number.  I'm not quite sure why I like it because it is odd.  It's supposedly a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, but Astaire's dancing is in no way like Robinson's (Astaire was more influenced by John Bubbles).  His outfit is nothing like what Bill Robinson would wear and, as one article I read on this noted, is more like what the character Sportin' Life from Porgy and Bess would wear.  And the main curious thing is seeing Astaire in blackface.  Yet, I get into watching it every time.  I like the music and dance rhythms and the extravagance of it all with him, at one point, "partnering" with a whole line of women and there is also a fun section with his shadows dancing.  The blackface on him is interesting in that it's not the typical super dark blackface with exaggerated white lips, it's more like it's "deeptanface" as if he'd been in the sun too long.

After watching the dance number this time, I started thinking the power of Bill Robinson/Bojangles in the tap world.  Below is the number from Swing Time (in two parts) and then a rendition of it I found on YouTube done by a Japanese dancer whose name I believe is Nozomi.

As I mentioned earlier, Astaire was more influenced by John Bubbles than Bill Rohinson, but evidently Eleanor Powell did know Bill Robinson and learned from him.  The following clip is harder for me to watch than the Swing Time one because Powell does wear the traditional blackface minstrel makeup and outfit as she dances her impersonation of Bill Robinson.  She pretty much has most of his steps and moves down, but her look has absolutely nothing to do with him, for he always dressed well (you'll see) and it just seems so wrong no matter how well meaning it was.  So, here is her "tribute", introduced by Robert Young.

Bill Robinson made a number of films, in and out of Hollywood, and in 1937 was supposed to be in the 20th Century Fox film Cafe Metropole.  Scenes were shot with him, one of which was supposed be at the beginning of the film.  But when the film was released, all of his scenes were cut out.  The film company at the last minute panicked about whether theaters around the country were ready to show a main stream film with a black artist in prominent display.  Recently two of his scenes were found.  The first would have been in the opening of the film and has him in top hat and tails.  The second scene is a number in the style that was known as an Apache Dance, a style that did not usually include any tap.  As you watch this second number, realize that his dance partner is a white dancer in...blackface.  Her name was Geneva Sawyer, who had been Shirley Temple's dance coach and Robinson suggested her to the producers.  Yeah, ain't this all interesting!

"Bojangles"  Where did Robinson get that nickname from?  There are a few stories of its origin.  Bill Robinson evidently said he got the nickname as a child.  In his book, "100 Years of the Negro in Show Business", black variety artist Tom Fletcher says it was given to Robinson by a bartender because Robinson was always in some kind of squabble and "bojangles" was slang for anyone who squabbles.  Whatever the origin, that nickname for many people is a synonym for Bill Robinson.  Here's another story.  Country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker was in jail for public intoxication in 1965 and met in there a homeless white man who called himself "Mr. Bojangles".  The man related a story about his dog, among other things, and then did a little tap dance.  That supposedly inspired Walker to write the song, "Mr. Bojangles".  It became a hit, but was also adopted by some tap dancers, particularly Sammy Davis, Jr., and Harold Cromer, to represent tap and what could happen to some performers.  The tune was never about Bill Robinson but, because of the name, it has become too easy for many to think it's about him.  Honi Coles never liked the tune for that very reason.  In fact Honi put together a routine of many of Bill Robinson's iconic steps that many of us have learned and refer to as "The Bill Robinson Routine" that is often done to a tune associated with him called, "The New Low Down".  There is a statue of Bill Robinson in his home town of Richmond, VA.  The last two clips take place by that statue.  The first clip reflects the misunderstanding of Robinson and the Walker tune, but has some interesting true information of why the statue is in its particular location.  The second clip has my friend, Jason Bernard, dancing ala Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as a short personal tribute to him.

See you next time.
Keep everything Copasetic!

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Tomorrow, October 12th, is the anniversary of Steve Condos' birth.  He would be 96 years old.  I don't know much about him (a nice bio is at American Tap Dance Foundation website), but remember seeing him for the first time at a show called, "Tappin' Uptown" held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1982.  It was a big show with Honi Coles, Peg Leg Bates, Chuck Green and others.  He and his brothers, Nick and Frank, were an act called, the Condos Brothers that performed during the thirties and forties.  They appeared in films (often just Nick and Steve) and in later years, Steve performed as a soloist.  His thing was rhythm and when I saw him perform, his close to the floor rhythm steps were interesting to see.  At first seeing him, I wasn't impressed because to my uneducated eye he didn't seem to be doing that much, until I just paid attention...and listened!  As the ATDF bio states, "Condos insisted that his tap routines be melodious as well as rhythmic."  He kept dancing right up to the end, dying of a heart attack at 71, in a dressing room soon after a performance in Lyon, France in 1990.

One of the current roster of tap dancers who was heavily influenced by him is Marshall Davis, Jr., whom Condos took under his wing when Davis was a young man and you can see in Davis' dance the continuation of what Condos was doing.  Last Sunday, Davis hosted a event at a club in the East Village to celebrate Steve Condos.  It was called, "Turn Up For Tap" and was not a performance but rather a party just to remember the man.  Folks gathered and talked, mingled, and social danced while
Savion Glover handled the DJ job of mixing some music.  I didn't stay for the whole time, so don't know if there was any tap, but enjoyed being there and had some nice conversations, particularly with two of the younger dancers there (well they all were young, compared to me!) about the importance of passing on tap history.  That was sort of the theme that night.  Marshall hosted a bit of a trivia contest about Steve Condos and, while doing that, mentioned names of other veteran performers and he would often say "If you don't know who he/she is, look him/her up or google them."  I agree and often say the same thing, make people do some work to find out history and not be spoon fed.

My mantra seems to be, "I'm living in an interesting time".  While hanging at the party I was looking at some of the tap dancers of now who were there like, Michelle Dorrance, Kazu Kumagai, Keitaro Hosokawa, Lisa La Touche, Khalid Hill and Yuka Kameda.  All of them doing good work, some of who I have worked with and all of whom impress me.  I thought of the tap people I got to know, who influenced me like, Tony White, Charles "Cookie" Cook, James "Buster" Brown, Marion Coles and Harold Cromer, most of who were before these younger artists' time.  I remember seeing a quite young Savion dancing with Gregory Hines 24 years ago at The Village Gate during a tribute to Steve Condos held a few months after his passing.  Sunday's event, for me, was about just being in the spirit of an art form and way of living one's life.  Take the time to appreciate whatever is important to you.

Below are two clips of Steve Condos.  If you want to know and/or see more on him and The Condos Brothers.....look it up!

Also with Steve Condos.

From the documentary, "About Tap"(1985)