Obituary: Will Gaines, dancer

Born: 5 April, 1928, in Baltimore, Maryland. Died: 7 May, 2014, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, aged 86

Will Gaines: Last in a long line of jazz hoofers who wowed audiences at the Fringe with his tap dancing

WILL Gaines was an African-American tap-dancer who began dancing on street corners for nickels and dimes, graduated to the famous Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1950s and appeared on the same bill as such jazz legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jnr, Nat King Cole and Charlie Parker.

He had to be persuaded that he would not freeze before agreeing to visit Great Britain in the early 1960s. Much to his surprise, he found that he liked it here, he settled in Rotherham in Yorkshire – because it reminded him of Detroit, where he grew up – and he delighted audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Gaines’s dancing had roots in old-school, soft-shoe shuffle and his most obvious musical complement was jazz. But he was famous for his ability to pick up the rhythm of any type of music and interpret it, from flamenco to baroque classical to Scottish Highland fling music. In at least one of his Edinburgh shows, he danced to poetry.

The entry in the 1988 Fringe programme for his show Jam With Will at the Fringe Club in Teviot Row simply said: “Nothing can prepare audiences for the subtle but exuberant artistry of this free-form jazz hoofer.” And it quoted the Observer as saying: “Never working to a set routine, he merely responds to what the music is, in his own way.” But Gaines insisted it was never a calculated response. “I don’t dance – the shoes do the dancing,” he said in a Channel 4 short film called My Home is My Shoes.

In later years, he served as mentor and teacher to a new generation of dancers at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, though it is suggested teaching was not his greatest talent because he could never explain what it was that his feet did; they just did it.

The educational charity African American Registry described him as “the last in a long line of jazz hoofers”.

Born Royce Edward Gaines in Baltimore, Maryland, he grew up mainly in Detroit. He worked as a shoeshine boy and had other odd jobs, while all the time dancing as well.

Victory in a talent show in a local bar led to more regular work as a dancer. “The prize was $50 and a week’s work,” he recalled. “But the owner, he liked me, and he kept me on for 13 weeks, three shows a night and six on Saturday.”

Gaines went on to perform in bars throughout the Midwest. By the early 1950s he was in New York and reputedly making $500 a night. In 1957, he became part of Cab Calloway’s show at the Cotton Club. He also performed in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

His reputation was such that he was asked to perform for US president Dwight D Eisenhower and there was pressure on him to perform in Europe. He was not keen because of the weather, but eventually relented, getting off the plane in Britain wearing a suit, overcoat, scarf, hat, gloves and long johns only to discover that the country was in the grip of a heatwave.

He toured theatres, clubs and army bases throughout Europe and appeared repeatedly at Ronnie Scott’s club and at the London Palladium, where several of his appearances were televised in the 1960s. But he decided he liked Rotherham best and would stay there.

Over the years, his own stage show evolved in such a way that he would take on the challenge of dancing to just about anything. And the dancing was broken up with long anecdotes about his early days in Detroit and Harlem and some of the greats with whom he had performed.

He turned up everywhere from the Royal Command Performance to Top of the Pops, Play School to St Paul’s Cathedral, where he tapped to music from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in 2006 and the audiences were invited to clap along in time, but could not keep up. He played theatres and halls, big and small, often turning up wearing a baseball cap back to front and carrying a large plywood board, as if he were an odd-job man come to do one final repair before the show began. But the board was his dance floor in venues that he did not think were up to scratch.

In later years, he moved to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex and he continued dancing well into his eighties, stopping only after a suspected heart attack last year. He performed at a show in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2008 to mark his 80th birthday and there is footage of him on YouTube at Leytonstone Social Club in London in 2012, sitting in a chair, but still dancing.

He was divorced and a son predeceased him. He is survived by a daughter ,Sharon, who knew nothing of his whereabouts for 46 years, before seeing the film My Home is My Shoes on YouTube four years ago.