She actually passed on December 7, but I only just got word of it over the weekend.
Jeni LeGon (August 14, 1916 – December 7, 2012) was one of the first African American women in tap dance to develop a career as a soloist.
She also had a lengthy onscreen (in film and TV), one that spanned over 65 years, starting in 1936 appearing as a cabaret dancer in Dishonour Bright, to 2001’s Ernest Dickerson-directed horror movie, Bones.
She also did a 2-season stint on The Amos ‘n Andy Show, from 1951 to 1953, appearing in 6 episodes in total.
But she’ll liekly be best remembered for her musical and dance talents. From the American Tap Dance Foundation:
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.
Apparently, she was the subject of a 1999 documentary by Grant Greshuck, titled Living in a Great Big Way, which was named after one of her famous numbers with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The film is narrated by Fayard Nicholas; however, it’s not easily accessible; I couldn’t readily find it online anywhere, for sale or for rent.
The 48-minute film is said to be a profile of Jeni LeGon, recounting her Chicago childhood, her early love for dancing which led to being chosen as solo performer for the Count Basie Chorus Line, which in turn landed her a role with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the film Hurray for Love, followed by over a dozen other films, all of which showcased her many talents. In the film, she reminisces about her show business career and honestly discusses how, confronted by the ‘color barrier’ of a segregated Hollywood, she followed the example of Josephine Baker and toured on the European cabaret circuit.
She went on to become a dance teacher in her later life.
RIP Jeni LeGon.