Legendary jazz tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born on May 25, 1878, in Richmond, Virginia. His given name was Luther, but he despised it and appropriated that of his younger brother, William. An extraordinary performer and synthesizer of the tap tradition, Robinson is also credited with one major innovation in this American art form: transforming its flat footwork into dancing up on the toes, which gave tap "a hitherto-unknown lightness and presence."* Many steps Robinson perfected with his trademark clarity, precision, and elegance, including the famous "stair dance," remain part of the tap repertoire today.
Orphaned in early childhood and unwanted by his grandmother, a survivor of slavery and strict Baptist who forbade dancing, Robinson nevertheless began dancing and singing as a young child for nickels and dimes on Richmond street-corners. He ran away to Washington, D.C., and spent some years dancing in local beer-gardens and surviving on odd jobs before breaking into the relatively new theatrical genre called "vaudeville," which showcased dancers, singers, comedians, and actors in a series of short performances. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Robinson was earning top dollar on the vaudeville circuit and in nightclubs as one of the very few black dancers who was permitted to perform as a soloist. In 1928 he burst onto Broadway with sensational success in the all-black revue Blackbirds of 1928. Other Broadway triumphs followed.