Josie Woods: Tap-dancing star of music hall
Saturday 23 August 2008
In 1997, the 85-year-old tap-dancing pioneer Josie Woods was "rediscovered" by the production team of the BBC TV current affairs programme Black Britain. In a short but enjoyable profile, filmed on location at the Brick Lane Music Hall, Woods recalled her heyday in the 1930s. Back then, she toured music halls up and down the country, and captivated audiences with her dazzling tap-dancing skills. She also helped to launch the jitterbug in Britain.
Josephine Lucy Wood (the "s" was added later) was born in 1912 in Canning Town in the East End of London to Charles Wood, a Dominican dock worker, and his wife Emily, the daughter of a dock labourer, whom Josie later described as "a gypsy girl. . . or so she told us!" A younger brother, Charles, was born in 1914.
In Britain in the 1920s, a young working-class black woman had only two options: become a seamstress or a dancer. Woods chose the latter because she said it was very hard in those days for black people to get a job. An opening in show business soon came her way. In the late 1920s, Belle Davis, the African-American music-hall entertainer who was popular in Edwardian England, formed a dance troupe called the Magnolia Blossoms. Davis held auditions within the black community of the East End. Woods recalled: "My mother said to Miss Davis, 'Why don't you take her? She can't keep still!' "
Woods and her brother Charles were taken with four other girls to Miss Davis's "big house in Holborn" where they received training before departing for Paris. She described herself as "something the cat dragged in, this little girl from the East End, a scruffy little thing". But she was determined to achieve success as a dancer. Woods claims she replaced Josephine Baker in La Revue Nègre. "They pulled her out to make her a star, and I wore her costumes."
She enjoyed two years on the Continent before returning to London where she joined the Eight Black Streaks, one of the first black British dance troupes. This popular and dynamic act, which included two Americans, Lew Hardcastle and his son Lew Jr, as well as Woods's brother, worked consistently for about eight years, until the outbreak of the Second World War. Described as "The World's Fastest Dancers", they toured music halls, and were seen at the London Palladium.
They also took part in the brilliant musical finale of the film Kentucky Minstrels (1934). In recently rediscovered footage of the finale, the Streaks dance up a storm while the beautiful African-American singer Nina Mae McKinney sings "I'm in Love With the Band". In 1936, Woods returned to Paris to appear with the Eight Black Streaks in the revue Harlem Black Birds.
The dance historian Terry Monaghan observed that, in the late 1930s, Woods was a pioneer of the jitterbug in Britain. "She told me she had heard about the jitterbug but didn't see it performed until she saw the film A Day at the Races." She was so captivated by the jitterbug sequence in this 1937 Marx Brothers comedy classic that she remained in the cinema all day, sitting through multiple screenings just to see that short dance sequence over and over again. "She was knocked out by it and that's what inspired her to jitterbug," said Monaghan. "She learnt it from the screen, featured it in her act, entered jitterbug competitions, and in dance halls she would teach it to anyone who was interested."
During the war, Woods formed a double-act with Eddie Williams and in 1947 they were featured in a BBC television variety show called Burnt Sepia. A second double-act followed, with Willie Payne, with whom she guest-starred in Nitwits on Parade (1949), a film which also featured a young Max Bygraves. When the popularity of television forced music halls to close, Woods had to find other ways to support herself.
As a film extra she found herself in Old Mother Riley's Jungle Treasure (1951), the penultimate film in the long-running, but extremely low-budget comedy series. However, the off-screen dramas were more interesting than the product that ended up on screen. When pay cheques were not forthcoming, Woods organised a strike for the black extras and confronted the film's producer. Not one to refrain from speaking her mind, she exclaimed: "Either you pay us what we are owed, or you can kiss my black ass!"
In 1956, Woods gave birth to her only child. Now known as Ralph Moore, he is a saxophonist widely respected in the jazz world. In 2001, she moved to America to be near her son.
The actress Cleo Sylvestre remembers the fun she had as a child in the 1950s, visiting Woods in Brixton with her mother who had once danced with her. "When my mother took me to see Josie there was lots of laughter. She was a very happy-go-lucky lady. Never down. Always very positive. Sometimes Josie would jump up and do a little dance for me."
Josephine Lucy Wood (Josie Woods), dancer: born London 16 May 1912; (one son); died 28 June 2008.
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