Libby Spencer (left?)

Libby Spencer (1920-1998)

Libby Spencer and students. Photo: Jane LevineMary Olivia "Libby" Hill Spencer was born on November 5, 1920 in St. Petersburg, Virginia into "a family of dancers." She recalled that her parents, Laura and James Hill, frequent participants in ballroom dance contests, were known locally as the "waltz king and queen." The family moved to New York City when Ms. Spencer was two and she learned to tap dance from family members and friends, including the Nicholas Brothers, who lived in the same apartment building. Ms. Spencer took less than a year of formal dance classes, studying with Ella Gordon and Henry LeTang, and she had no intention of contining to dance. But when she finished high school in 1940, she knew that she needed a job, and she recalled that "the best thing that I know how to do is to dance." So she got a job dancing in the chorus line at the Apollo theater where she was captain of the chorus line from 1940-1948.

She danced at Small's Paradise, performed with Bill Robinson (who she much admired) on Broadway in "Memphis Bound," danced in USO shows, for Hortense Allen and Larry Steele at Club Harlem in Atlantic City, and on other traveling road shows. She worked with hundreds of artists including Lola Falana, Honi Coles, Leroy Myers, and others.

She moved to Philadelphia in the early 1950s and danced regularly in nightclubs, theaters and regularly in Atlantic City with the Hortense Allen Review. She opened her own school, "Libby's School of Theatrical Arts" in 1960. She also reached generations of young artists, teaching tap dance through the City of Philadelphia's Recreation Department, where she was founder and director of the City of Philadelphia's Performing Arts Camp.

"We did the hard dancing," she recalled. "The story of chorus girls is the real untold story of tap dance, really." She performed as part of the Philadelphia Folklore Project's "Stepping in Time" production in 1984, and was one of the artists featured in the PFP documentary, "Plenty of Good Women Dancers." Ms. Spencer passed on April 11, 1998. For a fuller biography, see WIP 8:2 (1994) 22-27, 28-31.