Jeni Le Gon was a well-known singer and tap dancer during her time. She scuffed her heels from the South Side of Chicago to Hollywood, where she shared the screen with Cab Calloway and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She could later be seen in Broadway performing to the music of Fats Waller.
Le Gon was a rare female tap dancer who was a solo performer in the first half of the 20th century. She was born on August 14, 1916, and not long after her birth, her family moved to Georgia. Her last name eventually went from being “Ligon” to “Le Gon” due to a misspelling in Louella Parsons’ Hollywood gossip column.
As a girl, Le Gon sang and danced with neighborhood bands. At age 13, she got her first job as a chorus line dancer for a performance by the Count Basie Orchestra. However, she was so slender that there were no costumes to fit her, so she wore pants and was assigned to mug flirtatiously in front of the chorus.
Le Gon developed an athletic, acrobatic style to her performances. She would often do long kicks and flying splits that most of the male dancers were seen doing. In an interview she gave with The Globe, she reportedly said, “I danced like the boys. I could do the girls’ splits, but I used the boys’ splits because you could get up faster.”
According to the New York Times, in 1935 Le Gon appeared in “Hooray for Love,” an RKO musical starring Ann Sothern. She was featured with Robinson and Waller in the musical performance, “I’m Livin’ in a Great Big Way.” For a time, she performed in London, and she went on to dance, sing, and act in about 20 movies, including “Ali Baba Goes to Town” (1937), with Eddie Cantor; “Stormy Weather,” (1943), with Lena Horne and Robinson; and “Hi-De-Ho” (1947), in which she died in Calloway’s arms.
Le Gon could be seen in the early 1950’s on the “Amos’n’Andy.” Her career, like many other African Americans’ careers during that time, was blocked by racial bias that controlled Hollywood. She remained furious with Fred Astaire, with whom she shared rehearsal space in 1935, but he refused to acknowledge her presence on the set of “Easter Parade.” As with most Black women who were in showbiz, Le Gon took several different roles as a maid. She played East Indian, West Indian, African, Arabic, Caribbean and the Black American maids. In the 1950s and ’60s, she decided to teach dance in Los Angeles and founded a touring troupe, Jazz Caribe. She continued teaching after she moved to Vancouver in 1969.