Bill and Shirley

CJ has started a tap-dancing class in aftercare. She has little tap shoes and stands on a tile floor with other little girls, brushing her heels and toes against the floor and making little clicky sounds. It is as charming as you can imagine.

As I took her home from her second tap class, I suddenly realized that, much as she enjoys tap dancing, she has no idea what the art looks like at the highest levels. And I thought it would be fun if she could see another little girl doing it. So I pulled up the classic scene where Shirley Temple dances up and down a flight of stairs with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I’ve known this scene for as long as I can remember. My mother was a huge fan of tap-dancing and she made me a fan, too.

Watching it as an adult, it suddenly struck me: Wait, this scene is interracial. A black man and a little white girl are holding hands and dancing, alone, and acting as though it’s perfectly natural. And what year was this? 1935?

I searched my memory for a similar scene from the 1930s. Or ever, really. And I came back with nothing. It turns out this was the first interracial dance scene in a motion picture. The scene was cut when the movie was released in the South.

I also learned that Bill Robinson was more than Shirley Temple’s dance partner. He was also her dance teacher, and already famous for the stair dance, which he toned down to make it manageable for Temple, then just 6 years old.

This is how Temple describes their first meeting in her autobiography:

Robinson walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn’t looked down and seemed unaware. Fannie called his attention to what I was doing, so he stopped short, bent low over me, his eyes wide and rows of brilliant teeth showing in a wide smile. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking silence. “Can I call you Uncle Billy?” I asked. “Why sure you can,” he replied… “But then I get to call you darlin.'” It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his “darlin.'”

You can find hints of stereotype if you look for them. They’re bound to be there — it was 1935. But overall Temple’s account strikes me as a one of a warm human connection, one that started immediately and lasted until Robinson’s death 14 years later.

CJ was surprisingly unimpressed by the video, and asked to see an episode of “Pocoyo“.

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