Dancer, teacher and choreographer Leonard Gibson was born in the farming community of Athabasca, Alberta, in the late 1920s. Len taught himself to tap dance by observing the revelries of family gatherings and the films of Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr. By the time he was just five years old, his family was living in Vancouver and the child prodigy was working as a paid performer on local stages such as the Elk’s Club. By age ten he had performed with The Eddie Cantor Show and Blackstone the Magician.
As a teenager, Gibson widened his dance training to include studies in ballet with Vancouver–based teacher Mara McBirney who encouraged him to pursue a professional career in dance. This opportunity materialized when Katharine Dunham’s company toured to Vancouver in 1947 and invited Gibson to replace a dancer who had been delayed at the border. Gibson’s dancing impressed Dunham so much that he was offered a scholarship to her school in New York, where he also danced with her revue Bal Nègra honing his skills in the Afro-Cuban style, as well as jazz, Spanish and other dance techniques.
When a draft notice brought Gibson back to Vancouver in 1949, he began teaching with Mara McBirney and also founded the Negro Workshop Dance Group, which participated in provincial dance festivals in the late 1940s. Gibson was one of many dancers who benefited from the arrival of television in Canada, and in 1954, he wrote and choreographed Bamboula – the first musical variety TV program produced in Vancouver (and the first with an interracial cast). Bamboula lasted for three episodes before it was succeeded by the Eleanor Collins Show, for which Gibson also choreographed.
Gibson also broadened his skills in acting and singing by performing in Vancouver’s outdoor musical theatre series, Theatre Under the Stars. And when he left Canada again in 1959, he travelled throughout Europe giving solo performances as a “song and dance man” at nightclubs and military bases. Returning to Canada in the late 1960s, Gibson formed the Len Gibson Dance Ensemble and established a popular dance studio in Toronto, Ontario, that remained open until 1995. Gibson continued to work and choreograph in Vancouver well into his golden years, and he is remembered as one of Canada’s most talented African-Canadian choreographers throughout the twentieth century.
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