Going Places

Early in his dancing career, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performed on a custom double staircase that added drama to his act, increasing his visibility to the audience while amplifying his steps. In What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert writes, “What the stairs did for Robinson was reveal how he played with the structure of the music through how he played with the structure of the staircase.”

Robinson went through 20 to 30 pairs of clogs a year with footwork so impeccable that a listener under the stage couldn’t distinguish his right foot from his left. A less efficient dancer might have found the narrow steps daunting, but Robinson danced effortlessly “up on the toes,” keeping his feet neatly underneath him while displaying dazzling control and timing.

“As generations of imitators would learn to their grief, the properties of the staircase that magnified Robinson’s mastery equally magnify the slightest imperfection,” Seibert writes. “Dancers tell a story in which he had his musicians cut out for three and a half minutes while he continued dancing. After the allotted time, the musicians came back in, cued by a metronome that Robinson couldn’t hear. He was exactly on beat.”