CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 16 . . . . April 13, 2001
"I think I've been teaching all my life, because when I was about 10 I got the neighbourhood kids together and had a dance school and taught them some dance routines."Jeni LeGon's life is the stuff of a documentary filmmaker's dream. Born in 1916 in Chicago, Jeni loved to dance, sing and organize the kids around her into shows. At her elder brother's suggestion, she auditioned at the age of 13 for Count Basie's show. Her dancing ability assured that she was chosen, but her figure didn't fit in with the more mature chorus girls. Her pluck and assurance that she always danced in pants got her a part as a featured dancer and set up her trademark. Performing in pants instead of dresses and short skirts meant that she could show off her acrobatic tap abilities, doing anything that the boys could do. Jeni was one of the first black entertainers to be signed to a movie contract, as well as being one of the only solo female performers. Jeni danced in the movies with Bill Bojangles, the Nicholas Brothers and Fats Waller, among others.
Jeni's life illustrates the difference between black and white performers who didn't mix socially and were not afforded the same courtesies. In Jeni's day and up to the 1960s, blacks were frequently expected to enter the hotels in which they were performing by the back door and could not stay in the hotels. Jeni experienced a profound difference when she moved to Europe to perform. As she says, "People treated me like I was a person and not a person of colour." The movies in which she starred, and in which she played "everyone's maid," followed her return to the States. In the 1950s, she played a "glamour gal" on the television show Amos 'n Andy and opened her own dance studio. Jeni had been asked to bring her show to Canada several times but had thought it would be too cold. In 1969, she came to Vancouver where she met several friends and former students who convinced her to stay. She served as a "motivating agent, a person of some stature [who] moved in and stayed" and has been a fixture and a role model to kids ever since.
This video is not only a tribute to a vibrant, caring woman but also serves to illustrate cultural differences over time and across North America and Europe. Fascinating as a study of Jeni, it would be a useful tool for a study of multicultural awareness, a comparison of Hollywood to European lifestyles, or a measure of change in the past fifty years.
Betsy Fraser is a librarian with Calgary Public Library.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.