Quick Bio: Jeni LeGon

Over the last year or so of online talks and events, I’ve learned about so many different legendary tap dance artists, and written about a few of them too. This time, I thought I would write about one of the pioneering women of the artform – Jeni LeGon:

Born: 14th August 1916 in Chicago, Illinois as Jennie Ligon.

Died: 7 December 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Known For: Being one of the first black women to develop a successful solo dance career, for dancing in trousers (unusual for women at the time) and for being the only black woman to dance on screen with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who was regularly paired with Shirley Temple.

Training: She developed her art on the streets of Chicago’s South Side and went on to win a tap dance contest in Savannah, Georgia. At 13 years old, she got her first musical theatre job, dancing as a soubrette. She went professional by age 14 when she started performing with Count Basie. Later, in 1943 she took lessons in African dance from the amazing Katherine Dunham, dancer, anthropologist and creator of the Dunham Technique.

Style: Flash – acrobatics, flips, double spins, knee drops, flying splits, toe stands

Early Career: In 1931 she started performing across the Southern US states with the Whitman Sisters’ all female chorus (the Whitman Sisters were four African American sisters whose successful touring company challenged racial stereotypes, ran for over 40 years and was the best paid act on the TOBA circuit). Later, Jeni formed the LeGon & Lane tap duo with her half-sister Willa Mae Lane in 1933. She danced in speciality acts in the Detroit nightclubs and then went on to dance in Los Angeles.

Hollywood & Beyond: Jeni was discovered in 1935 by manager Earl Dancer and she signed an extended contract with MGM Studios. Her first film casting was Broadway Melody of 1936, starring Eleanor Powell, but the contract was cancelled soon after because the studio “didn’t want to have two [female solo] dancers”, which basically meant they didn’t want her to outshine Powell. In the end, LeGon worked as a dance consultant and dance director for MGM, who didn’t know how to market a solo black female dancer. She said “I didn’t fit in at that time as one of the kids next door”. As was the case in those days, many of the Hollywood roles she did get cast her as some type of servant or maid. It was only when she starred in all-black films with people such as Cab Calloway, such as Hi De Ho (1947), that she said she got the chance “to be the heroine, to get kissed”. Her first actual screen role was in Hooray for Love (1935) where she danced with Bill Robinson. The film also starred Fats Waller, who she went on to work with for much of her career.

In 1936 she got some work in the UK, appearing on the West End stage in C.B Cochran’s revue, Follow the Sun and in the film Dishonour Bright (1936). 

Movie Credits: Hooray for Love (1935), Dishonour Bright (1936), Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), This Was Paris (1937), Start Cheering (1938), Fools for Scandal (1938),  Double Deal (1939), I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (1940), Birth Of The Blues (1941), Bahama Passage (1941), Sundown (1941), Arabian Nights (1941), While Thousands Cheered (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), Hi De Ho (1947), Easter Parade (1948), I Shot Jesse James (1949), Somebody Loves Me (1952), Bright Road (1953), Documentary – Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way (1999), Bones (2001).

Later Life: Jeni quit Hollywood in the 1950s, studied percussion, and continued to work in dance and music, including teaching and running drama workshops. She relocated to Vancouver in Canada, a place she found much more welcoming than the US.

She Said:

I decided I wanted to be in show business. I used to sneak out of school and go see Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and all the wonderful bands they had at that time

I’ve had a dance school all my life

I danced like a boy

Hollywood was a black and white world

[MGM] were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn’t good enough to eat in their dining room

Honours

  • Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame
  • National Congress of Black Women
  • Doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance, Oklahoma City University (2002)
  • International Tap Dance Hall of Fame, American Tap Dance Foundation (2002)

Modern References:

Jeni LeGon is the subject of obsession for one of the protagonists in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, that I am yet to read!

Sources:
  • BFI https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/jeni-legon-hollywood-dance-pioneer-swing-time
  • The History Makers https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/jeni-legon-38
  • Vancouver Sun https://vancouversun.com/Entertainment/african-american-tap-dancing-diva-jeni-legon-dies-at-age-96-in-vancouver-with-video?r
  • The Province https://theprovince.com/entertainment/celebrity/im-doing-ok-and-im-living-in-a-great-big-way-jeni-legon-often-stole-the-spotlight-dancing-with-the-biggest-stars-of-the-20th-century
  • American Tap Dance Foundation https://www.atdf.org/hall-of-fame-bios
  • Malone, Jacqui, Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago (1996)
  • Valis-Hill, Constance, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, New York (2010)

A Holiday, A Decision & A Festival

Holiday

I can’t believe it’s July already! My SO and I recently had a week’s holiday in Torbay, aka the English Riviera, which basically consists of the seaside towns of Torquay (as in Fawlty Towers), Paignton and the beautiful fishing harbour of Brixham. We had such a great time, and we were really spoiled with the lovely weather (because everyone back home had rain a lot of that week). The week ended having an Agatha Christie theme because we visited her holiday home Greenway, by the stunning River Dart, we saw an Agatha Christie exhibition at Torquay Museum and some of the set and costumes from ITV’s Poirot (one of my favourite shows ever – although only series 1-8. Not so bothered after it changed production and we lost the comedic relationships between Poirot and Inspector Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon), we saw her comedy-thriller play Spider’s Web at Paignton Theatre one evening, and while visiting her hometown of Torquay, we also found the site of her childhood home, which is sadly no more. What a week!

Big Decision

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

After thinking about it for quite a while, today I closed my soap business that I’ve been running for about 10 years. Although I had been thinking about doing it for a while, Brexit ended up being the catalyst as I had to jump through a number of hoops to submit all my product details to the new government cosmetics portal, and I just knew I was over it already. Although I feel a little sad about it, I also feel like a BIG WEIGHT has been lifted off my shoulders. About 5 years after starting my craft business I got into tap dancing which requires time and dedication, plus I didn’t have much time for writing for fun anymore, so it feels good to have that extra time back! I have a small-scale wholesale customer who I will continue to make for once a month, but I’m just done with all the other stuff.

Tap City

American Tap Dance Foundation’s TAP CITY festival starts on Monday!!! I’m really excited to be able to join in while it’s taking place online. I mean, who’s getting on a flight from London to New York at the moment?? I’ve printed off the schedule, highlighted all the intermediate classes, and added in the class times in GMT (big thanks to my SO for reminding me about that!). I will actually be working Monday and Tuesday (still working from home, so I can join in from 5pm) and then I am on holiday the rest of the week so I can take part live, but my registration actually includes 30 days access to the recordings. Result!

On another note, I am currently working on a mini-bio about a female tap dance legend to share with you shortly. I did start doing research while I was in Devon, but I was too distracted by the sea views!

A Journalism Workshop

I hope you’ve had a good week? Yesterday I had my last tap class of the half-term. The next block of 6 begins the week after next, but I’m wondering whether to take a break until September (shocking, I know!) and try to work my way through some of the video content I still haven’t looked at from the various festivals, workshops, classes, one-off events, etc that I purchased last year. I find it hard to fit in when I have exercises and choreography to practise for my weekly class. I’m unavailable about 2 or 3 weeks of the next block, if I sign up for the usual Wednesday or Thursday class, so if I do enrol, it’ll be on the Tuesday night class. I may…I may not.

I continue to explore writing as a career, and so last night I attended an online masterclass from The Guardian newspaper entitled: ‘Kickstart Your Freelance Writing Career: A Journalism Workshop’, with journalist Coco Khan. I did actually write for a couple of student magazines when I was at university all those years ago – I was a writer for a publication called Student Pages, where I did a travel piece and another piece where I interviewed friends about their courses and career aspirations. Alongside that, I also did music reviews for another publication (can’t remember what they were called now), where they sent me free CD singles and I wrote what I thought of them! Unfortunately, both magazines closed down in my final year, and what I should have done when I finished university was get in somewhere else while I had a current portfolio of work. But you know, life gets in the way, you get an unrelated job and forget about it for several years. (Also, when I was at secondary school I had a theatre review published after my Classics teacher submitted it to a magazine – I have to say they changed it so much, it didn’t sound like me at all!)

Anyway, back to last night’s Guardian Masterclass. There were 60 of us on Zoom meeting, and Coco talked about finding and developing your own voice, how to break into journalism, pitching your story to (extremely busy) editors, delivering great journalism, building relationships with editors, building resilience and handling rejection. It was a two and a half hour class, but we were late starting due to internet issues, and by the time we came to the 5 minute break, nearly 2 hours in, I had a thumping headache, and had to exit before we got onto having a go at writing a pitch and the promised ‘mammoth’ Q&A at the end. Questions were asked and answered at various points throughout, which was helpful, and they will be sending through the presentation slides. I got SO much out of the session, and it made the idea of pitching a story, opinion piece or personal essay to a magazine, newspaper or website a lot less intimidating – if no-one replies, or they don’t go for your story, don’t take it personally! They’re busy and they get hundreds of pitches in their inbox every day. We’ll see what happens!

Try not to second-guess yourself.

Get back on the horse.

Don’t put your pen down.

(Coco Khan)

On Musicality

I’ve been vaccinated!

Great news – my SO and I both had our first Covid vaccinations last weekend! We had the Pfizer Biontech jab as they’re no longer offering under 40s the Astra Zeneca, due to the risk of blood clots. I was glad about that because I had a DVT when I was 20. I’m a little scared of needles, and felt quite worked up just before I had it done, but honestly, I didn’t even know the nurse had done it until I saw her drop the needle into the disposal bucket. I was given a green sticker to wear on my hand to indicate my nervousness, and the nurse was great and just chatted away to me about my plans for the weekend, so I was distracted 🙂 I’ve never, ever had a bad experience with needles, but for some reason I get super nervous and start freaking out. They asked me if I was likely to faint and needed a bit of time, but I said “nope, I’ll be fine, I just get a bit worked up” (i.e. just get it over with!). I posted about how I hate needles and how easy and painless it was on social media because I have a cousin who is flat out refusing to get the vaccination because she is a proper needlephobe.

Musicality

In other news…I recently attended a series of three online workshops on musicality for tap dancers. Hosted by my teacher’s tap company, we were joined by guests Jess Murray (The Tap Project/London Tap Jam/Tap Dance Research Network UK), Gustavo ‘Tato’ Sassone (The Luthier Dance School Barcelona), and Max Pollak (Rumba Tap). These guys are all amazing in their own right and I came away having learnt SO MUCH:

  • Jess got us to explore improvisation, looking at beats, units of time, accents and space, and we looked at which steps we can fit into different rhythms (such as cramp rolls into swung eighths), which will really help with future improvisation.
  • Drummer and percussionist Tato took us through the very basics of music theory, which was so helpful to me because I had forgotten a lot and my understanding was vague up until that point. We didn’t do any tap, but we spent the session clapping out the rhythms, which was helpful for concentrating on that, rather than what you’re doing with your feet.
  • Drummer and percussive dancer Max showed us the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Clave. Stepping, clapping and singing, all at the same time – argh! But he broke it all down in such a way that you found yourself able to do it…if only for a while! These things take practise. My teacher had actually let me know about an opportunity to do online classes with him on a Friday evening, but I don’t want to take any more on right now!

I actually had clarinet lessons for a couple of years when I was at secondary school (and I hated them!), and although I could play okay and can still read music (although I needed a refresher), I was better at playing by ear than by music score. Revisiting music as a tap dance student has been interesting; our teacher will use musical terms like ‘sixteenth notes’ and ‘triplets’, and it literally means nothing to me, despite attempting to learn what they are. I’ve gradually realised over the years that I don’t really retain numbers and amounts in the way that I retain words.

I’ve attended 2 online musicality workshops with Sarah Reich over the last year and these recent sessions have gone over it all again, with things like bars and note values, and I write myself loads of notes, but I don’t seem to be able to retain the information in my head! Some students want to know how many steps we’re doing, or how many counts something is, where as I learn from retaining the ‘bah-dah-bee-bah-dah’, which isn’t a bad thing at all, because you want to move from counting into feeling the rhythm. After all, the masters did it by feel. But, I still want to be able to understand what I’m doing musically. Our teacher is very good at recognising that we all learn differently, because she’ll explain it both ways. My solution for now, has been to create index cards with the note values and explanations and stick them on the wall of my garage tap studio! 🙂

Anyone else struggle with music theory? Let me know in the comments 🙂

March Motivation

Hey, how are you doing? Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve found it hard to find the motivation to write, despite having lots to write about and trying to make THIS year my ‘Year of Writing’ (last year didn’t really work out…). So here’s a brief run-down of what I’ve been up to:

Tap Dance Standards Workshops

I recently attended a trio of tap dance standards workshops on Zoom, hosted by Sole Rebel. I literally jumped at the chance to learn some classic repertoire! I told you about the first one, Leon Collins #53 in my last post, and the next two were Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s King For A Day, which I absolutely LOVE, taught by Old Kent Road’s Avalon and Buster Brown’s Laura (some of which I’d learnt at Tap Dance Festival UK in 2019), taught by Old Kent Road’s Ryan. Thankfully recordings of the class and of the full routines were provided, so I can continue to work on these in my own time. I’ve just signed up to the next trio of workshops, which will be focusing on improvisation, musicality, rhythm and body percussion, which will be challenging and amazing!

Writing Challenge

In February I signed up to a ‘Couch to 5K’ writing challenge called Wake Up Your Writing, where I received a timed writing prompt by email every day for a whole month. Unfortunately I got to day 5 and gave up…*sigh*…BUT, I still have the emails, so I am going to pick up where I left off: “Pick a character you know and love and make them do the thing you always wished they would”. I’m going to have a think now about which character I want to write about 🙂

BOP Jazz Workout

My SO and I are still working from home, and while it can be too easy to flop on the sofa in the evening, one thing I have been motivated to do is the BOP Jazz dance workout every day after work. I think part of it is the feeling of stretching and lengthening those stiff muscles after a day at the desk, and the other part is the wonderful chilled jazz music that accompanies the workout. It’s a manageable bit of cross-training. I also like the fact it’s more of a body conditioning and stretch class than a bouncy cardio workout, which I really have to be in the mood for! (BOP are the London-based Body of People Jazz Theatre Company, and the founders, Dollie Henry and Paul Jenkins have written a fantastic book called The Essential Guide to Jazz Dance, which is on My Must Reads list).

Thanks for reading!

How are you staying motivated at the moment? 

Sedentary Superbody

Guys, I’ve been really lazy recently. Like many of us at the moment, I’m working from home, sitting at a desk all day, and then I don’t really feel like doing anything energetic after work, plus I’ve been on a 3 week break from tap classes. And now England is heading into another period of lockdown! No Guy Fawkes Night celebrations this year 🙁

In the summer I was finishing my day with bouncy 80s aerobics workouts in the garage, a Rambert ballet class in my living room or a run around the block, or I was getting out into the back garden to do bits out there, but now we have shorter (and many drearier) days, I’ve not been very motivated at all! That is until Thursday when I did the SUPERBODY aerobics video on YouTube (look it up – it’s cheesy and amazing! Hahaha!). You know you’ve had a good workout when SWEAT is running into your eyes! As Maya Angelou said:

Nothing will work unless you do.

Tap class starts again this week (woohoo!) and rather than continue with the Thursday afternoon class which is (as far as we know) returning to the studio, I’ll be doing the Wednesday night class online. It should be interesting! I’m really looking forward to getting back to it. I had promised to send our teacher a video of me doing the last routine we worked on (Harlem Shuffle) – I haven’t done this yet, so I’d better get in gear and record myself later! 

My Saturday afternoon Charleston class is a mixture of both online and in-studio students, but I’m finding it a bit chaotic, and the Microsoft Teams platform is not ideal for live stream dance classes, especially as it cuts the teacher’s feet off if I pin her to full screen. It also freezes a lot, despite my laptop being connected to the broadband router by ethernet cable! Thankfully our teacher is sharing videos of the exercises and routine on our class WhatsApp group, and as I type(!) she is petitioning the college for us to be allowed to use another platform, such as Zoom or Google Meet… otherwise I’d probably be dropping out of the class. She also does some Rhythm Sessions and history talks online through her own vintage dance company, which I might check out.

Hope you are able to have a positive week amidst all this madness.

Friday Roundup

Holiday

It seems like a long way off now, but at the beginning of September, my SO and I spent a relaxing week in the beautiful South West. We had been intending to head to Scotland this Summer, but then of course, COVID happened. We were prepared to just stay at home this year, but then as things began to open up after lockdown, and we were being encouraged to spend money, I found us a cute cottage on a cider farm in sleepy Somerset for a change of scene. We visited various National Trust gardens, Forde Abbey gardens, took a ride on a heritage steam train, had a cheeky spa day and afternoon tea (although steam room and sauna closed), and visited the East Devon coastal towns of Sidmouth, Seaton and Beer. It felt so good to get away…but obviously I missed my cat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authentic Jazz

After watching so many online talks about tap dance and jazz dance history this summer, I got my jazz shoes out and enrolled on an online vintage jazz dance course called ‘Charleston to Jazz’, which I’ve been doing on Saturday afternoons since mid-September. As opposed to the musical theatre jazz that most people recognise now, vintage or authentic jazz refers to the original jazz dances popularised in the 1920s and 30s, influenced by the exciting ragtime, jazz and swing music of the time: the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Big Apple, the Shimmy, Suzi-Q, Lindy Hop, Balboa and tap dance. So far we’ve learnt the Cakewalk, a dance that came out of Southern slave plantations and preceded many other jazz dances, and we’ve just started learning the Charleston, which I LOVE. The last 15 minutes of the class include watching some footage. In my enthusiasm I’ve probably taken on one thing too many again, but let’s see how it goes…

Rhythm Tap

Every year I say I’m going to do loads of practise while we’re on a break from classes…and then the break is over before I know it! We’re well into the new term with Rhythm Tap, and for this block of classes we’re doing an amazing routine to Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle. It’s really testing me on my open thirds & closed thirds (slurps), oh and my co-ordination!

As I hear about more and more dance studios opening up for socially distanced classes, I’m definitely missing being in the studio with my classmates and teacher. However:

  1. my classes are not back in the studio yet, although they may be from November.
  2. my workplace (and the government…kind of) has told us to continue working from home for now, so I can’t travel 1.4 hours into London for a 45 minute class during my working day. I could do it after work for two back- to-back evening classes I suppose, but that’s A LOT of travel, and I’d like to avoid the London Underground for now!

Have you recently returned to the dance studio? Have you started learning any new styles? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Keep dancing!

Tap & Tea with Heather Cornell

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This final series of Tap & Tea history talks kicked off a few weeks ago with special guest Heather Cornell. Heather is the artistic director of Manhattan Tap and was the only dancer to be mentored and trained by legendary jazz musician Ray Brown. She is known for having been a major player in the tap dance renaissance and her famous ‘Tap Labs’ are celebrating 30 years this August.

Heather started dancing as a child in Canada with classes in ballet, jazz and tap, with the tap being taught as per the syllabus system, which she, and many others (particularly in the UK) describe as having lots of limitations, to the point where Heather was actually ‘aged out of it’ by the AGE OF 14… She described Canada at that point as having “no understanding of the history of tap”, and she stopped tap dancing because the only avenue was to go into musical theatre, which she didn’t want to do. She went to study Dance Therapy at NYU and did modern dance, but she was at a loss with the vocabulary. She then discovered the more rhythmic Cunningham technique of contemporary dance and decided to move to New York permanently. She ended up getting back into tap, and someone recommended she go study with Cookie Cook – Heather described the first time she heard the sound of his taps and burst into tears! It was a world away from the Canadian tap syllabus.

During her talk, Heather described Charles “Cookie” Cook as a consummate performer. He did comedy, Russian dancing, knockabout, you name it! He had an amazing sense of theatre, timing and how to put together a show and the education she received from him helped her to create her own company, Manhattan Tap. It was that old school style of learning – she hung out with him, he talked and she soaked it all up. Speaking of the old school hoofers, as many have said, none of them taught in the modern way of ‘this is how you do a shuffle’…they just danced and played, and you just had to pick it up: “It was a culture, not a subject”.

Continuing on this theme, Heather moved on to talk about the concept of mentorship: “I collect people”. She said it’s a serious thing – find a mentor, but be prepared to commit. As mentioned by other guests on previous weeks, Heather didn’t hide her disdain at the “distorted euro-centric way of learning” where ‘I pay you, you give me…’ because it will “never grow the art form”. She also made us aware that apparently many of the older generation of tap dancers bristle at the current use of the phrase ‘tap fam’ (as in tap family) because the relationships in those former days were deep and personal, like a parent passing something onto their child. I’ve seen the phrase ‘tap fam’ used a lot on social media as a way to make everyone feel connected across the globe as one big tap family (especially during Covid, right?) but I can see where Heather is coming from when she describes the current scene as more ego-driven and business-like, especially when everyone’s got a social media presence and fan base to maintain.

She was so not impressed with the cutting contests and competition scene, where you have teachers sitting in judgement over other tap dancers, or the newer tap festival scene where teachers are kept apart from attendees. Why? Because “mentors need to be accessible”! Cutting contests happen at all the festivals I’ve been to, and in my opinion, I think they create a bit of excitement and engagement, particularly for younger dancers…but personally, I won’t be taking part any time soon! I do agree with Heather that a tap jam is a better expression of what you can do, because participants can share, learn and ‘steal’ from each other, rather than be under the pressure to compete and then be told by a ‘judge’ that something they did was ‘wrong’ or not as good as their rival. What do you think?

Heather Cornell was fascinating to listen to. She is one tough cookie with understandably strong opinions on the direction the tap scene is going in. But that’s a good thing, because you need people to defend the art and make sure it goes in the right direction and continues to be accessible to all.

Some quotes from Heather

Wake up and start taking responsibility for yourself

If we don’t pass on the history [of tap], nobody else will

We need to reconnect tap dance to the music

You have to make mistakes or you won’t get better

Don’t be afraid to colour outside the lines