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‘The Mayor of Harlem’ celebrates Bill Robinson as dance superstar, as well as social activist

From left, dancers Phillip Attmore (jumping), Christina Carminucci, John Manzari (jumping) and Amanda Castro. (Tap Family Reunion)
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When hoofin’ aficionados celebrate National Tap Dance Day on May 25, an observance designated by Congress in 1989, they will be honoring not just an art form, but also a person: the tap dance legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, said to have been born on that date in 1878. Robinson may be best known for appearing alongside Shirley Temple in movies, but long before Hollywood discovered him, he had trailblazed across the nation’s stages.

Now a new dance piece is paying tribute to Robinson: “The Mayor of Harlem” is streaming on-demand through June 3 as part of the digital season of the Joyce Theater in New York. Directed and choreographed by a trio of tap stars — Dormeshia, who is acclaimed enough to go by one name; Derick K. Grant; and Jason Samuels Smith — the production recalls Robinson’s terpsichorean talents. But it also dwells on a less widely acknowledged aspect of his life: his civic contributions and pushback against racism.

“Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson didn’t get total recognition for his activism,” Dormeshia says. “We often celebrate Bill Robinson as the tap dancer, but we forgot what he did for us as a people. We want to really celebrate that part of his contribution to the community — not just the dance community.”

That goal is all the more striking because Robinson isn’t universally known as a social role model, despite his accomplishments and renowned philanthropy. A native of Richmond (he may have acquired his “Bojangles” moniker after stealing a cap from a hatmaker with a similar name), Robinson hopped a boxcar to Washington as a dance-smitten youngster. After moving to New York, he became the first Black performer to have a solo act in vaudeville, overturning an industry policy that precluded such star turns by Black artists.

Robinson’s vaudeville triumphs included performing at New York’s Palace Theatre — the summit of vaudeville prestige and the venue where, the story goes, he debuted his signature stair dance in 1918. He also graced Broadway shows such as “Blackbirds of 1928.” Favoring dancing on the balls of his feet (as opposed to a more whole-sole approach) with an erect posture, the charismatic Robinson exhibited terrific pizazz and precision. Harlem Renaissance eminence Alain Locke described the acoustic aspect of a Robinson performance as “an almost symphonic composition of sounds.”

The Robinson technique isn’t easy, says Dormeshia, who recalls how tricky it was when, for a show, she had to re-create a delicate but intricately snappy sequence he executed in the 1935 movie “Hooray for Love.”

“You look at him, and he’s on the balls of the feet, and he makes it look so easy,” she says. “It really isn’t. To make it sound so clean and so smooth was not an easy task.”

Offstage, Robinson’s celebrity didn’t shield him from racism. Meanwhile, he was a generous community supporter, performing in benefits, donating to needy people and playing a pivotal role in the creation of a playground in Harlem. His philanthropy helped earn him the honorary title “Mayor of Harlem.”

But even before his death in 1949, Robinson’s reputation had begun to suffer, reflecting his perceived cooperative relationship with the White establishment and his willingness to portray subservient characters in many of his movies — the valiant but deferential enslaved person he channeled in the Temple flick “The Littlest Rebel” (1935) as a case in point. Robinson’s film work was just one part of his meteoric career, and his choices were limited by industry practices of the times, but the problematic celluloid images stuck.

“People didn’t feel that he was representing the Black community in the way that they wanted to be represented,” Dormeshia says.

She and her collaborators say such criticism is misguided.

“People go as far as to call Bill Robinson a sellout, or an Uncle Tom, or any kind of lazy insult that they can come up with, because of stereotypes only and their refusal to do a little research,” says Grant (a Helen Hayes Award winner for “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” in 1998). The facts show Robinson to have been a force for positive change, Grant says, pointing to evidence such as the barrier-breaking in vaudeville.

“When we talk about activism, sometimes we don’t talk enough about community work,” Smith says, noting that the tarnishing of Robinson’s legacy parallels certain negative views of tap dancing in general.

“There’s still a lot of negative connotations to tapping,” Smith adds. “They say ‘tap dancing around the issue.’ A lot of Black people say, if you’re selling out, you’re ‘tap dancing for the man.’ ”

The three collaborators have done their part to burnish tap’s legacy. In recent years they have spearheaded Tap Family Reunion, an annual New York City-based multiday lineup of events honoring National Tap Dance Day. “The Mayor of Harlem” anchors this year’s installment.

Dormeshia, Grant and Smith opted not to perform in “The Mayor of Harlem,” filmed at the Joyce in early May, so as to give opportunities to other artists. The seven-dancer show, featuring Maurice Chestnut as Robinson, unfolds in dance numbers (including, of course, a stair dance), rounded out with projections and a smidgen of narration. A quartet performs tunes including “Diga Diga Doo,” from “Blackbirds of 1928” and “Stormy Weather” (the 1943 film in which Robinson played a showbiz luminary).

Projected photographs of protests from the past century add emphasis to the section that argues for Robinson’s activist credentials. As for that argument, it’s spot-on, says author N.R. Mitgang, who is not involved in the dance production but co-wrote (with Jim Haskins) a biography of Robinson. The book portrays the tap dancer as fighting racism and systemic injustice in multiple ways — for example, by insisting on integrated audiences for benefits he was involved in, in Dallas and Miami, at a time when that was unheard of.

Robinson “fought for equality throughout his lifetime,” Mitgang says, but “did it quietly, behind the scenes.”

Robinson, he adds, “was smart enough to realize that if too many Whites realized he’s breaking down this barrier, and breaking down this barrier, he would be out of a job.”

Haunting this year’s National Tap Dance Day is the fact that May 25 is the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd. A superficial knowledge of tap’s giddier and gauzier manifestations — polished Broadway capering, floaty sequences in Golden Age films — might make the coincidence seem jarring.

But the creators of “The Mayor of Harlem” don’t see a conflict between the feting of a great American art form, which is so identified with Robinson, and current calls for racial justice.

There’s a “parallel in terms of Bill’s experience,” Grant says. “The uphill battle as an African American man — constantly having to prove himself, having to fight for equality in this country — is very much relevant today. It speaks to, ultimately, the cause of George’s life being taken from him. It’s all the same conversation. It’s even more important to speak to it now than ever before.”

Tap Family Reunion’s “The Mayor of Harlem.” Streaming through June 3 at joyce.org/4th-annual-tap-family-reunion. $25.

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