On July 8, 2014, Gene Kelly will be inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in New York City, as part of the American Tap Dance Foundation’s ongoing effort “to honor the contributions of legendary tap dance artists by preserving their legacy for future generations to enjoy.”
With this honor, Gene joins many of his friends and colleagues, including The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, who appeared with Gene in the famous “Be a Clown” sequence in the 1948 movie The Pirate. The number was revolutionary because it paired Gene with two black men, something not done in movies at that time. The studio executives feared that theaters around the country would ban the number, but Gene insisted that it be included. The executives were right. The dance was cut from the film when it screened in several southern cities, but now, fortunately, it is preserved as a remarkable combination of acrobatic “flash” steps and as a groundbreaking bit of history.
Gene will also join some of the people he touched and inspired, most notably Gregory Hines. Gene loved Gregory and spoke with warmth about him as a dancer and human being and about the “terrific clarity and terrific precision” of his steps. The feeling was clearly mutual as evidenced in the tribute to Gene at the 1982 Kennedy Center Honors when Hines performed “I Got Rhythm” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” in an homage to his friend and mentor.
And, finally, Gene will join those who went before him, including the man he considered “the epitome and the quintessence of tap dancing perfection”—the great Bill Robinson. “There were guys that did more exciting stuff,” said Gene, “like Buck and Bubbles, in rhythm styles. But Bill Robinson was it. I was very fortunate to be a young man coming along learning dancing when he was around.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Gene saw Robinson perform at the opulent Loew’s Penn Theater downtown. “Robinson was a great star,” recalled Gene. “The amazing thing about Bill was that he danced in clog shoes, like the Irish clog dancers. And he did simple steps. I can see them all right ahead of me.” As Gene shared his vivid recollection with me, he imitated the sound of Robinson’s taps, “Brrrtatatatatata,” and described them as “little steps that any really good tap dancer could pick up.” But to Gene, Robinson was different. “Nobody could get the ease and the grace and the sound that Bill Robinson got. I’ve never heard it quite that clean and clear again.”
In one of my recorded conversations with Gene back in 1987, I asked him if he could identify something in his films directly connected with Bill Robinson. “Sure,” he said, “there are variations of Bill Robinson in the dance I do with Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain—"Moses Supposes." Variations of it, but, basically, some of those steps are from Bill Robinson.”
As Gene said of Robinson, “Bill himself had lifted from older minstrel men and vaudeville people before him; things such as asides to the audience or making jokes during the dance.” And then there was Robinson’s cocking of his hat that would become one of Gene’s signature gestures. “He always wore a derby and he would take that off and fan himself or twist it. And when he’d make an exit, sometimes he would cock it over his eyes. We all stole that from Bill Robinson, and, Lord knows, he might have stolen it from an older minstrel man before my day, before I was even born. He was remarkable.”
The history of tap dancing—and Gene’s place in it—represents a wonderful succession; a chain of influences and inspiration as one artist “stole” from another and made the steps uniquely his or her own. Gene would be very proud to be part of this great pantheon.
© 2014 Patricia Ward Kelly
Patricia Kelly is Gene Kelly’s wife and biographer. She will be on hand on July 8 at 7 p.m. as her late husband is inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Bruno Walter Auditorium. Visit www.atdf.org for tickets or call 646-230-9564.
The following night, July 9, at 8 p.m., Mrs. Kelly will present her one-woman show GENE KELLY: THE LEGACY, An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly at Symphony Space. Described as “endearingly entertaining” by The Hollywood Reporter and as “a one-of-a-kind out of this world event” by Sony Pictures, this intimate portrait—combining stories, film clips, rare audio recordings, and personal keepsakes—takes audiences on a special journey into the life of Gene Kelly and his career: as a dancer, trained in all forms of dance, choreographer and director.
For information about upcoming Gene Kelly Legacy events, please go to www.genekelly.com and “subscribe” and “Like” Gene Kelly The Legacy on Facebook.