Josie Woods: Tap-dancing star of music hall

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."

Stephen Bourne

Josephine Lucy Wood (Josie Woods), dancer: born London 16 May 1912; (one son); died 28 June 2008.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks
tv

Regular cast member Ste Hay, played by Kieron Richardson, is about to test TV boundaries

Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
techPerils of 'text neck' revealed
News
i100
News
Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt
peopleStonewall boss says many fear it could ruin their careers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

Isis takes a big step back

Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

How to shop politically

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

Sex on the brain

Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection