Bill Bojangles Robinson, was the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Dancing upright and swinging, his light and exacting footwork brought tap “up on its toes” from an earlier flat-footed shuffling style, and developed the art of tap dancing to a delicate perfection.
Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885. Young Bill was reared by his grandmother, Bedilia Robinson, who had been a slave. In Richmond, he got the nickname Bojangles from jangler, meaning contentious, and invented the phrase Everything's Copasetic, meaning tip-top. He got his first professional job in 1892, performing as a member of the pickaninny chorus for Mayme Remington with The South Before the War. When Robinson arrived in New York in 1900, he challenged the In Old Kentucky star tap dancer Harry Swinton to a Buck-dancing contest and won. From 1902-1914, he teamed with George W. Cooper. Bound by the two-colored rule in vaudeville, which restricted blacks to performing in pairs, they performed together on the Keith and Orpheum circuits, but did not wear blackface makeup that performers customarily used.
Robinson was a staunch professional, but he was also a gambler who possessed a quick temper and carried a gold-plated revolver. An assault charge in 1915 split the act. After the split, Robinson launched his solo career, becoming one of the few African-Americans to headline at New York's prestigious Palace Theatre. Robinson's Stair Dance, introduced in 1918, was distinguished by its showmanship and sound, each step emitting a different pitch and rhythm.