I never knew “the man Bojangles who would dance for us.”
According to the song made famous by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, tap dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson had worn out shoes, silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants.
And, he did the old soft shoe, for those who witnessed him landing very light after he jumped so high and clicked his heels.
But on Monday, I did get to meet a woman named Mary Wall, a Pied Piper of sorts of tap dance who hopes that people who love music and dance will remember Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson by honoring him from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday, May 25 — National Tap Dance Day.
That’s the day Wall is inviting anyone who is 12 and older to come to the dance studio, Rythmic Expressions Studio, 617 S. McClintock Drive in Tempe, to participate in her Tap Dance Workshop, free of charge — to learn the four verses of the “Shim Sham Shimmy.”
“It’s my passion,” Wall said of tap dancing and teaching it. “It’s always been a good part of my life. I can’t imagine not dancing. You put little kids in tap shoes and they’ll march all over the place pounding their feet.”
National Tap Dance Day was designated as such by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
When I heard about Friday’s event, I thought I would see if I could do the old soft shoe and hopefully not land with a thud after I jumped so high (but not too high) and tried to click my heels.
But instead of maybe embarrassing myself in front of a large group on Friday, I ducked into Wall’s Monday evening class and tapped with eight of Wall’s students — Kim Heintz, Gina Hoyt, Sharon Moore, Regina Pryor and Isabel Sesmas, all of Mesa; Anne Chandler and Rachel Sheehan of Tempe; and Diane Stevens of Gilbert.
I was a guy outnumbered in a group of women, some seasoned dancers, who had the tap, Tap, TAP, down pat, and have danced for decades. Wall also has taught tap dancing classes at Mesa Community College for the last 10 years.
“I miss the theater,” said Kim Heintz, a Chicago native and 1954 graduate of Evanston (Ill.) High School who has danced since she was 8. She also was a chorus girl with the Follies Theater in the 1950s.
“Gene Kelly was my favorite,” Heintz said. “I kept going to the movies to watch him and always loved it. When I heard about Mary (Wall), I started taking her classes. She’s a good dancer and a good teacher. And besides, I like the exercise.”
And to tell the truth, getting out on the dance floor wasn’t that bad. Instead of attempting to do anything fancy such as jumping so high to emulate Mr. Bojangles, Wall led everyone in the basics. It simply started off with a march, march, right, left, right, kind of thing before eventually progressing to music with a collective, tap, Tap, TAP. I was able to handle that without embarrassing myself.
Wall described the somewhat quicker leg moves or steps as “stamping out a cigarette.”
“It’s exciting,” said Regina Pryor, who also teaches at a different studio and has been dancing since she was 5. “It’s just good exercise. You have to forget about all your problems and focus, think about nothing but tap.”
“It’s an American art form,” Wall said of tap dancing. “Like ballet belongs to the French and Russians, tap is the one dance that’s truly American. Tap’s roots began similar to hip hop music. People would get out on the street and challenge each other and try to outdo one another. Before taps, dancers would put nails on the bottom of their shoes to make the clicking or tapping sound. Tap later emerged on the vaudeville stage and dancers used it for the grand finale of a vaudeville show. Dancers made wonderful sounds without pounding.”
A man with a big heart, “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson was a soft touch for anyone who was down on their luck or had a good story. A native of Richmond, Va., Robinson began dancing for a living at the age of 5, first appearing as a “hoofer” or busker in local beer gardens. He later served as a rifleman during World War I with New York’s 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. And, he later performed on the Vaudeville stage and became well known for appearing in movies with child actress Shirley Temple. Robinson died penniless at age 71 in 1949.
Friday will be the second time Wall has hosted the National Tap Dance Day event. A tap dance instructor at Mesa Community College and Rythmic Expressions for the last 10 years, Wall first hosted the workshop five years ago and had about 30 people show up to dance.
But this Friday, Wall, who has been tap dancing since she was a kid living in Buffalo, N.Y., said she hopes to have more dancers as she currently only has 15 who show up for her Monday evening and Friday morning dance classes at Rythmic Expressions.
“It’s one of those things,” Wall said about dancing. “I watched a lot of Shirley Temple movies, and she would dance with Mr. Bojangles. Every time I got a new pair of shoes, I danced on our linoleum floor. My best friend in kindergarten took dance lessons, too. I told my mom and dad if ‘Karen gets to go to dancing school, I want to go to dancing school, too.’ So, they sent me to dancing school, and I’ve been dancing ever since.”
Wall said her main goal was to be a New York City Rockette, but when she was 12 years old, she said she stopped growing at 5 feet 3 inches tall.
Noting that you had to be tall to be a Rockette, she didn’t let those tall odds against her deter her dream of continuing to dance.
“I just gotta keep doing this,” Wall said. “Dancing needs to be a part of my life.”
And hopefully on Friday, it will be a part of your life too. Wall is hoping for a big turnout to tap, a crowd ready to learn a dance step or two.
Just like “Mr. Bojangles” who would dance for us.
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