David Bruce: The Funniest People in Dance — Prejudice, Problem-Solving


• The great black dancer Bill Robinson, aka Mr. Bojangles, fought prejudice. One day, some members of Duke Ellington’s band ordered coffee and doughnuts but were refused service. They ran into Mr. Bojangles and told him what had happened. He told them to follow him, and they all went back to the restaurant. Mr. Bojangles sat down, pulled out his gold-plated gun with the pearl handles, laid the gun on the table, and ordered coffee and doughnuts for himself and his friends. This time, they were served.

• After turning age 13 in 1930, Wah Ming Chang took dancing lessons in a school in California. Unfortunately, soon he was told to leave and never come back. Later, he found out that some parents had complained after discovering that their daughters were dancing with a boy of Asian heritage. As an adult, Mr. Chang became a famous artist and award-winning creator of special effects for such television series as Star Trek and such movies as The Time Machine.

• In the Jim Crow days, black dance pioneer Katherine Dunham toured the South, where she often confronted race prejudice. In a segregated theater in Louisville, Kentucky, she was outraged because blacks were forced to sit in the balcony. After the performance, she stood on stage, looked at the white members of the audience, and stated, “This is the last time we shall play Louisville because the management refuses to let people like us sit by people like you.”

• During the Jim Crow days, Sir Rudolf Bing took the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Aida on tour to Washington, where he was informed that Janet Collins, the Met’s African-American ballerina, would not be welcome at a party at the Mayflower Club. Therefore, Sir Rudolf stayed away from that party and hosted his own, at which Ms. Collins was very welcome.

• In 1937, while traveling in the pre-civil rights south, Norma Miller and some other touring Lindy Hop dancers stopped at a White Castle hamburger joint to order food, only to be told, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” One of the dancers replied, “We don’t eat Negroes — just serve us a burger!”


• Comedian Fanny Brice always had a talent for singing, but she soon realized that her weakness was dancing — a weakness for which George M. Cohan once fired her from the chorus line of one of his shows. Being ambitious, Fanny began to work on her weakness. Before leaving on tour with a show, the young Fanny went through her family’s home and gathered up all the female undergarments she could find, using the excuse that as the star of the show she had to make many costume changes and couldn’t possibly wear the same bloomers during an entire show. (Actually, she had only one song in the show.) On the road, she began to ask girls in the chorus to teach her dance steps in return for the undergarments. As soon as one girl got tired of teaching her, Fanny would offer some bloomers to another girl. In time, she learned to dance.

• Fern Helsher, an attractive woman, worked as a press agent for Ted Shawn at his dance retreat, a former farm called Jacob’s Pillow. One day, a road crew was putting tar topping on the road by Jacob’s Pillow, but they were stopping about 100 feet from the driveway leading to Jacob’s Pillow. Mr. Shawn mentioned to Ms. Helsher that he had asked the town officials to extend the tar topping another 100 feet but they were unwilling to do so. Ms. Helsher said, “Let me handle this.” She then dressed very provocatively, mixed a pitcher of martinis, and went down to the road crew. She stood at the point to which Mr. Shawn wanted the tar topping poured and told the members of the road crew, “If you build the road to this line, you can have everything you see just beyond it.” The road crew raced to build the road, and when they had finished, Ms. Helsher put down the pitcher of martinis and ran to safety.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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