Jeni LeGon made her name in the 1930s singing and dancing with other African-American stars such as Bill Bojangles Robinson and Fats Waller. Her biggest role was in the 1935 MGM musical, “Hooray for Love,” in particular the number “I’m Livin’ in a Great Big Way” (video above.) The entertainment press at the time called her the "Chocolate Princess." Born in Chicago, she taught dance in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s and died Dec. 7 in Vancouver, B.C., says the New York Times:
Ms. LeGon was the rare female tapper who distinguished herself as a solo performer in the first half of the 20th century. She wore pants rather than skirts when she performed, and, somewhat as a result, she developed an athletic, acrobatic style, employing mule kicks and flying splits, more in the manner of the male dancers of the time.
“I danced like the boys,” she recalled in an interview with The Globe and Mail of Toronto in 2009. “I could do the girls’ splits, but I used the boys’ splits because you could get up faster.”
For a time she performed in London, and she went on to dance, sing and act in some 20 movies, including “Ali Baba Goes to Town” (1937), with Eddie Cantor; “Stormy Weather,” (1943), with Lena Horne and Robinson; and “Hi-De-Ho” (1947), in which she died in the Colloway’s arms.
She also danced on Broadway in “Early to Bed,” a 1943 musical comedy with a mediocre book — it concerned a brothel masquerading as a girls’ school on the island of Martinique — that was raised to distinction by Waller’s score and the choreography of Robert Alton.
On television in the early 1950s, Ms. LeGon appeared several times on “Amos ’n’ Andy,” but over all her career was stymied by the racial bias that governed Hollywood for much of its history. She remained angry for decades at Fred Astaire, with whom she shared rehearsal space in 1935 but who she said refused to acknowledge her on the set of “Easter Parade” (1948), one of many films in which she played a maid.
“I played every kind of maid, that’s all I ever did,” she said in an interview with the Web site tapheritage.org. “I was an East Indian, West Indian, African, Arabic, Caribbean and black American. Eventually there weren’t that many roles. They were too few and far between.”
She was dancing in Los Angeles when she was discovered for the movies, says the American Tap Dance Foundation Hall of Fame:
Jeni LeGon is one of the first African American women in tap dance to develop a career as a soloist. 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.
LeGon was the subject of a 1999 National Film Board of Canada documentary by Grant Greshuk, "Jeni Le Gon: Living in a Great Big Way."
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Photo of LeGon rehearsing with Robinson