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Jeni LeGon (1916- )
2002 Inductee

Jeni LeGon is one of the first African American women in tap dance to develop a career as a soloist. Not a high-heeled dancer in pretty skirts, she was a low-heeled dancer performing toe-stand in pants, and her rigorous combination of flash, acrobatics, and rhythm dancing proved you didn’t have to be a man to dance like a hoofer. Born in 1916 and raised near the south side of Chicago, her musical talents were developed on the street in neighborhood bands and musical groups. At the age of thirteen, buoyed by her brother who got a job touring as a singer and exhibition ballroom dancer, she landed her first job in musical theatre, dancing as a soubrette in pants, not pretty skirts. By the age of sixteen, she was dancing in a chorus line backed by Count Basie Orchestra, and soon after touring as a chorus line dancer with Whitman Sisters, the highest paid act on the TOBA circuit. This all black, woman-managed company was successful in booking themselves continually in leading southern houses, and had the reputation for giving hundreds of dancers their first performing break. The Whitman Sisters’ chorus line, LeGon remembers, “they had all the colors that our race is known for. All the pretty shading from the darkest, to the palest of the pale. Each one of us was a distinct-looking kid. It was a rainbow of beautiful girls.” It was while working in Los Angeles, where she was stopping the show for her flips, double spins, knee drips, toe stands, that LeGon got a part in the 1935 MGM musical, Hooray for Love, as dance partner to Bill Robinson, who she says was a patient teacher and a perfectionist.

It was while working on that movie that she met Fats Waller, whom she continued to work for much of her career. In 1936, LeGon performed in the London production of C.B. Cochran’s At Home Abroad. She was hailed as one of the brightest spirits, the new Florence Mills, and the “sepia Cinderella girl who set London agog with her clever dancing.” In New York, she was one of the few women ever to be invited back to the Hoofer’s Club.

LeGon played leading roles in a number of black films, where she claims, “sometimes I even got to be myself,” not a maid or any number of stereotypical roles. She toured widely with US Army shows, and she did club and theater performances nationally and internationally.

In a 1999 documentary by Grant Greshuck, LeGon’s extraordinary devotion to passing on tap dancing is as much a feature of the film as her stardom. Living in a Great Big Way, named for one of her famous numbers with Bill Robinson, is narrated by Fayard Nicholas, who reveres LeGon as a star performer and a gifted teacher who could “do it all.” LeGon says that sees teaching as a natural extension of her performing – “I’ve had a dance school all my life.” One envies those students for whom she clearly and still labors for the love of the form.

Constance Valis Hill & Tony Waag

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