LaVaughn Robinson (2003)

New York Times Obituary

LaVaughn Robinson, a tap-dance virtuoso on the big-band circuit in the 1940s and ’50s who became a master teacher and a major force in tap’s revival, died on Jan. 22, 2008. He was 80.

His death was announced by the Tap Legacy Foundation in New York. Mr. Robinson, who lived in Philadelphia, died of heart failure there, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

In awarding a National Heritage Fellowship to Mr. Robinson in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts cited his distinctive style: “In performance, Robinson stresses the vernacular origins of tap grounded in community tradition and honed by generations of tap masters, many of whom, such as Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers, grew up in Philadelphia.”

Mr. Robinson was part of an extraordinary generation of child dancers who rose to stardom after sharpening their tap skills in Philadelphia street competitions. In later years he would credit as his mentors white dancers like the Condos Brothers from Philadelphia, as well as his fellow black performers.

“The first one that influenced me was Paul Draper,” Mr. Robinson said. Mr. Draper, a well-known concert tap dancer who used classical music and who was white, “almost brought tears to my eyes,” Mr. Robinson said in an interview at Temple University in 2002.

It was Mr. Robinson’s mother, however, who taught him his first tap step in South Philadelphia, where he was born on Feb. 9, 1927. At 7 he was drawn to the street-corner contests, where he could pick up steps from his elders and earn money. Bill Bailey, Pearl Bailey’s brother, was a friend and informal teacher.

Tap dancers then could easily find work in Philadelphia’s numerous variety theaters and nightclubs. The big-band shows that played the Earle Theater there always included a tap dancer; Teddy Hale was Mr. Robinson’s favorite and the model for his own rhythm, speed and stream of continuous tapping.

Turning professional in 1945, Mr. Robinson teamed up with another dancer, Howard Blow, but his longtime stage partner was Henry Meadows. They toured nationally, appearing with bands led by Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey and Charlie Parker but always returning to Philadelphia’s clubs. Eventually Mr. Robinson performed on his own and in later years danced without music.

In 1982 he was hired by the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, now the University of the Arts, where he taught for 20 years. Germaine Ingram, a civil-rights lawyer, who had studied with him privately, joined him as part of a trio and in 1988 as a duo. By then Mr. Robinson was a revered teacher, appearing in New York and other cities in festivals and tributes to the tap veterans who revived the form.

Mr. Robinson is survived by his wife, Edna; his sons, LaVaughn Jr., Gregory and Shelton; a sister, Catherine Bell; two grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.