Jeni LeGon dies at 96; dancer was one of the first black women to become a tap soloist

She was an exuberant Chicago teenager who tapped and shimmied in nightclub revues and became a rare female soloist in the male-dominated dance profession. A chorus girl at 13, she worked her way to center stage, and her saucy personality and showstopping acrobatics made her a star at 18 on the black theater circuit in the mid-1930s.

“At the time, there were very few girls who could do what I could,” Jeni LeGon told a Canadian newspaper decades later. “I had moves that were typically men’s moves because they were so technically difficult — flips, splits, cartwheels — I could do it all.”

(American Tap Dance Foundation Archives) - Jeni LeGon with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whom she held her own against in the 1935 RKO musical comedy “Hooray for Love.”

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Ms. LeGon, who died Dec. 7 at 96 in Vancouver, was lured to Hollywood and cast in the 1935 musical comedy “Hooray for Love.” The “Chocolate Princess,” as she was dubbed by the white entertainment press of the era, helped break new ground as a black woman singing and dancing in a mainstream Hollywood production. She anticipated Lena Horne by several years.

In “Hooray for Love,” an otherwise forgettable RKO film, Ms. LeGon more than held her own against the masterfully suave dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson while they tapped to the jazzy pop standard “Living in a Great Big Way.” Fats Waller was the pianist.

Soon afterward, Ms. LeGon won a long-term Hollywood contract at Metro-Goldywn-Mayer, which made the most prestigious musicals in the film capital. She was scheduled to play a supporting role in “Broadway Melody of 1936,” which starred white dancer Eleanor Powell.

But Ms. LeGon made a strategic error before shooting began. At a charity event, she performed her tap routine from the film and it so unnerved Powell, she claimed, that she was cut from the movie.

“It was a color thing,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2006. “They said they couldn’t use two tap dancers, but that was bull corn.”

For Ms. LeGon, “Hooray for Love” was a career peak. She said MGM canceled her $1,250-a-week contract, but she remained a screen performer in diminished roles for several more years.

“I think I played every kind of black maid you can imagine,” she told the Vancouver Sun. “I’ve been a maid from the West Indies, Africa, Arabia. It was frustrating, but what was I going to do? You gotta eat, darling — you gotta eat.”

Jennie Bell Ligon was born Aug. 16, 1916, on Chicago’s South Side, where she taught herself to dance at 6 at street-corner gatherings of neighborhood kids who entertained with kazoos, washtub drums and harmonicas.

She subsequently developed an act dancing in pants instead of a skirt because her adolescent figure was less than voluptuous. She toured in the early 1930s with the Whitman Sisters vaudeville act before the manager of singer and actress Ethel Waters spotted Ms. LeGon and managed to secure her a Hollywood contract.

In the film colony, she often had better luck in low-budget movies aimed at black audiences, such as “Double Deal” (1939) co-starring Monte Hawley and “Hi De Ho” (1947) with Cab Calloway.

At MGM and other studios, Ms. LeGon danced specialty numbers and had minor parts in movies such as “Ali Baba Goes to Town” (1937) with Eddie Cantor, the wartime drama “Sundown” (1941), “Birth of the Blues” (1941), “Arabian Nights” (1942), “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) and “I Shot Jesse James” (1949).

It stung most, she said, when she was cast as a maid in MGM’s “Easter Parade” (1948), an Irving Berlin musical that starred Fred Astaire. They had been RKO colleagues when she first arrived in Hollywood — Ms. LeGon and Robinson would watch Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearse on another set, and Astaire and Rogers would return the favor.

Ms. LeGon said she felt snubbed by Astaire while making “Easter Parade.”

“He never spoke to me, never acknowledged me,” she told People magazine in 2005. “He knew I was the same person, I’m sure of that. I was really hurt. It’s inside and I can’t get rid of it. Hollywood was a black and white world.”

Ms. LeGon also appeared in short-lived musical productions on Broadway and the London stage in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and was a dance and song consultant in Hollywood. She and her future husband, composer and arranger Phil Moore, wrote the song “The Sping” — a blending of “Spanish” and “swing” — sung by Horne in the 1942 MGM film “Panama Hattie.”

After appearing on “The Amos ’n’ Andy Show” TV series in the early 1950s, Ms. LeGon opened dance studios in Los Angeles with a Russian ballet teacher and then performed with a dance troupe called Jazz Caribe. She settled in Vancouver in 1969, taught classes on African rhythm and immersed herself in other dance projects over the next several decades.

She remained a lively stage presence through her 80s and began collecting lifetime achievement awards from arts groups. The American Tap Dance Foundation inducted her into its hall of fame in 2002. She was the subject of a documentary, “Living in a Great Big Way” (1999), and she made her final screen appearance in the 2002 horror film “Bones,” starring Snoop Dogg and Pam Grier.

Ms. LeGon’s death was confirmed by Sas Selfjord, who produces the Vancouver International Tap Festival. She had Alzheimer’s disease, Selfjord said.

Survivors include a companion, drummer Frank Clavin of Vancouver. Her early marriage to Moore ended in divorce.

As she was feted in later life, Ms. LeGon often played down her significance as a pioneer for black women. That didn’t mean she was modest about her dancing ability.

“I was a good hoofer. You know — I could really lay it down,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 1998. “I remember doing toe stands way before Michael Jackson ever put on a pair of shoes.”