2006 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award winner LaVaughn Robinson believes feet are the greatest instruments of all.
In the mind of veteran tap artist LaVaughn Robinson, tappers aren’t just dancers—they’re also musicians. “I teach students to be musical with their feet,” says Robinson. “As a tapper, you are playing the floor. You use your instrument to tap out a tune.”
Robinson’s own career has played out like the sweetest of songs. After starting out on the Philadelphia streets, he graduated to the lively nightclub circuit, where he shared the stage with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane. Robinson’s unique brand of tap has since thrilled audiences around the world, and earned him honors such as Pennsylvania Artist of the Year and the National Heritage Award.
At the same time, Robinson has always shone as an educator. Throughout his career and, in particular, as a tap professor for 23 years at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, he has shared his legacy with students of all generations—and cherished the experience. (Robinson, now 79, retired last year from UArts, which honored him as a Distinguished Professor.) “Tap is one of the most beautiful, graceful artforms,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful thing you could ever want to hear.”
Dancin’ in the Streets
Though Robinson grew up to be a world-renowned tap instructor, he didn’t have the privilege of formal instruction as a child. Growing up in a family of 14 children during the Great Depression, Robinson first began to dance as a way of earning money. His mother had piqued his interest in tap by teaching him simple steps on the wooden kitchen floor. “My mother was always cooking apple cobbler and sweet potato pie, and I was always there to sample it,” Robinson says with a laugh.
After perfecting the time step, Robinson ventured out of the kitchen and onto the streets of Philadelphia—the corner of Broad and South Streets, to be exact. This intersection was a gathering place for Philadelphia’s top tappers to go busking. “I went every weekend,” he recalls. “In those days, when you danced on the street, you drew crowds and passed the hat around. That was how I helped feed my family.”
Robinson soon realized that, for him, tap dance could be more than just a way of getting by. Aspiring to master the artform and rise to the level of famous dancers like “Stumpin’ Stumpy” and Bill Bailey, Robinson began spending a great deal of time at the local Earl Theater, where prominent tappers performed with visiting big bands. It was at the Earl that Robinson discovered Teddy Hale, who became a major inspiration throughout his career. “Everywhere [Hale] appeared, I would make it my business to watch and study him,” says Robinson. “You could hear music so tender coming out of his feet; he danced note for note. He was one of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen.”
At the age of 18, Robinson landed his first professional gigs in local nightclubs. He and dance partner Howard Blow performed as the opening act for Cab Calloway, and headlined with jazz legends like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and Maynard Ferguson. “Working with the great big bands was one of the highlights of my life,” says Robinson. “Dancing wasn’t something that I planned on; these things just happen.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Though tapping came naturally to Robinson, he has never been one to rest on his dancing laurels. Through his early observations of Hale and other tap greats, Robinson realized discipline and dedication were key to longevity. “I learned that you have to practice in order to master and control this artform,” says Robinson. “After you get through practicing, you have to practice again. And then you practice some more. And that is how you learn.”
In fact, he says, he first began teaching as a means of keeping his skills finely tuned. Despite a busy touring schedule, Robinson always made time to teach at jazz festivals and schools all over the world. When he began his stint at The University of the Arts in 1982, Robinson was thrilled at the additional practice opportunities it provided.
“Teaching helped me keep in shape and put combinations together,” says Robinson, who taught seven classes per week at the university. “It was essential to practice and teach if I wanted to live up to the expectations of professional tapping.”
Robinson was always diligent about passing on this strong work ethic to his students. According to Germaine Ingram, Robinson’s dance partner of 26 years and a longtime student, Robinson is quite “strict and rigorous” in his expectations. When Robinson first agreed to give Ingram private lessons, he asked her to meet him for weekly 6 am classes to make sure she was serious about learning. “[Robinson] taught me that tap was a disciplined process, not fun and games,” says Ingram.
Back to Basics
Along with imparting the necessity of practice, Robinson urged students to build a strong dance foundation. From his perspective, many contemporary tappers have lost sight of the primary tenets of tapping. “When I came up [as a young dancer], the first thing we learned was the basics,” remembers Robinson. “Today the youngsters are dancing, but seem to have forgotten about the basics.”
In Robinson’s classes, students of all skill levels were taught to master the simple steps before moving forward. “After you take students back to the basics, they can use their minds to create their own combinations,” he says. “Tap isn’t about feet first, but the mind. This is not just stomping and making a lot of noise. There is always a story to tell.”
Robinson also encouraged students to use the whole body when tapping. He instructed them to use their arms to lift and maneuver their bodies, and to utilize facial expressions when appropriate. “LaVaughn’s focus is always on the taps telling a story with a clear beginning, middle and end,” says Ingram. “There are clear intersections that carry you through the various chapters of a piece. There is an intent that an audience should be able to understand, and it’s not just a barrage of sound.”
In a typical class at UArts, Robinson would begin with a brief tap warm-up, followed by a short across-the-floor sequence. He would then segue into combinations. Along with teaching tap technique, Robinson also regaled the students with stories from his professional escapades, giving them rare insight into the techniques of leading tap talents. Yet even though he worked with so many other masters, he emerged with an undeniable flair of his own. “Though LaVaughn was influenced by other dancers, his tap is not homogenized tap that represents a mish-mosh of styles,” says Ingram. “Those influences have merged into a sensibility that is distinctively LaVaughn’s.” He helps students find their own voices as well. Karen Cleighton, a graduate of UArts and Robinson’s student for the past 10 years, says he has helped her create her own special breed of tap. “LaVaughn taught me so much about the history of tap and about hoofin’,” says Cleighton, who is now a faculty member at UArts. “Before studying with LaVaughn, I was only familiar with Broadway-style tap. Now I’ve blended his teachings with that style to create a style of my own.”
In Robinson’s early days of busking, street dancers tapped a capella or to the sounds of a tramp band’s homemade instruments, such as a washboard played with cymbals or a bazooka stuffed with cigarette paper. Learning to make do without instrumental accompaniment shaped the way Robinson eventually viewed and taught dance. “When we had the tramp band, it made us become more flexible with our dancing,” Robinson says. “Hollywood tappers like Fred Astaire had props and choreography that made them look better. On the street, we had to be quick with our ideas, and our combinations came from our own minds.”
Ingram believes this mentality has always influenced Robinson’s approach to tap. When Ingram and Robinson first paired up, they sometimes worked alongside live musicians for rehearsals or practice. However, with time, Robinson chose to go a capella. “LaVaughn’s inclination has always been to work without musical accompaniment,” she says. “To him, the taps must carry their own musicality and tell their own story.”
This raw approach is also reflected in Robinson’s teaching style. Instead of leading class with terminology or 8-counts, Robinson chooses to model the movement for his students. “LaVaughn demonstrates and expects his students to replicate [the steps],” Cleighton says. “When he teaches, he’ll act as if his feet are talking.”
A Living Legend
Although his tap career has given him the chance to see the world, Robinson has always stayed true to his Philadelphia roots. He and his wife still reside there, along with his three sons and their respective families.
Robinson’s numerous accomplishments have put him in the esteemed company of the local tappers he once admired as a child—the Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles and Bill Bailey among them. Along with representing the Philadelphia style, Robinson has made his own unforgettable contributions to the tap lexicon.
“LaVaughn has clarity about what makes for powerful performance and choreography, and he knows how to convey it in a compelling manner to his students,” says Ingram. “When you watch him dance, you can’t help but say, ‘This is art.'” DT
Jen Jones is a dance instructor and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
It Takes Two
Beautiful collaborations are often born of the teacher-student relationship, and LaVaughn Robinson and Germaine Ingram are one shining example. For 26 years, the pair has traveled the world, performing at concerts and festivals. From France’s International Festival of Dance and Film to the American Folk Festival in Washington, DC, Ingram and Robinson have become a familiar and revered staple on the tap circuit.
Their teaming began in 1980, when Ingram, then a practicing lawyer, met the master at a tap workshop for cloggers. She soon began taking private lessons from Robinson, who sensed inherent talent in the budding tapper. “Germaine was easy to teach because she knew music and could sing,” he says. “That made tap much easier for her to learn.”
Within three years of their initial meeting, Robinson asked Ingram to join him for some small local shows. In 1984, he recruited her for the Philadelphia Tap Dancers, a performance trio he was forming with Sandra Janoff. Though the trio was successful, the group disbanded in 1988, and Ingram and Robinson soon morphed into the duo the tap world knows today.
“Throughout the years, I’ve evolved from novice student to apprentice to protégée to full partner in the collaborative effort,” says Ingram of her journey with Robinson. “I’ve been exposed to a number of tap greats who were stunning on the floor, but not necessarily inspiring as teachers. LaVaughn’s contributions are as much [as] an educator as a performer.”
Photography by Trevor Dixon