Tap dancing on the balls of one's feet hardly seems like a novel idea, but the technique is due largely to beloved hoofer Bill “Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949). He revolutionized the previously popular style of flat-footed shuffling with up-on-his-toes tapping and a swinging rhythm.
Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, he was given the nickname “Bojangles" as a reference to his quarrelsome nature (from “jangler"), and he began performing as a teenager in the “pickaninny" (that is, African-American child) chorus for the white minstrel show The South Before the War. Eager to pursue a professional performance career, Robinson moved to New York around 1900. He soon made the rounds on the vaudeville Keith and Orpheum circuits with fellow dancer George W. Cooper, satisfying the “two-colored" rule, which required blacks to perform in pairs.
By 1915, Robinson had moved on to become the first black solo act in vaudeville, known to audiences as “The Dark Cloud of Joy." Several Broadway shows followed, with films not far behind. His wooden taps, infectious grin and famous generosity set him apart as a remarkable individual, but it is his crisp tonality and ability to break down racial prejudices in the performance that have inspired and paved the way for countless other tappers.