“During the prejudice years, country clubs were not integrated,” Bates reflected in later days, “and I started thinking how blacks might like to have a country resort just like any other race of people.” Bates’ contributions to the region were honored a few years back when portions of Route 209 were renamed the Clayton Peg Leg Bates Memorial Highway.
The Dancing Man has won many film awards over the years, and is presented as part of the Rosendale Theatre’s “Dance Film Sundays” series held on the second Sunday of every month. Admission costs $10 for adults and $6 for children aged 12 and under.
While Bates’s story of overcoming adversity is powerfully inspirational, perhaps the most impressive thing about his career is that he became a great dancer, not in spite of his differences but because he used what he had to work with to create stunning performances that were transcendent of any thought of pity. His dancing was characterized by “flash” (spectacular aerial maneuvers) and acrobatics, along with elegant soft-shoe and powerful rhythm-tapping from his lightning-fast right shoe. He adapted difficult steps like “trenches,” bent forward 90 degrees at the waist, extended leg and peg flying up behind him in defiance of gravity; these aren’t performance that one watches with awareness of a handicap, but with admiration and awe for his skill.
Bates was known for his positive spirit, and never wanted to play the pity card. While still on crutches at age 12 after having to have his leg amputated (on the kitchen table), he still resolved to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional dancer. “It somehow grew in my mind that I wanted to be as good a dancer as any two-legged dancer,” he recalled in later years. “It hurt me that the boys pitied me. I was pretty popular before, and I still wanted to be popular. I told them not to feel sorry for me.”
He started by tapping out rhythms with his crutches. After being fitted with a wooden peg leg made by his uncle, he moved on to imitating the steps that he saw tap dancers doing. He adapted the movements to his unique situation, and by age 15 he was a professional, on his way to a successful career. Charming and debonair, Bates was able to cross the color line, performing on the same bill as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as well as with other talented men of color like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
In 1951, Bates and his wife Alice purchased a turkey farm in the Shawangunks and converted it into the Peg Leg Bates Country Club. He was active in the community, a member of the Ellenville Lions Club. After selling the resort in 1989, Bates spent the last ten years of his life making regular appearances at schools, senior citizen centers and nursing homes. He’d show a video about his life and talk about his experiences, and encourage young people to stay off drugs and to pursue an education. He told them that they could do whatever they put their minds to. “Look at me,” he’d say. “Just do it with all your mind and heart.”
The Dancing Man screening & reminiscences about Peg Leg Bates, Sunday, February 10, 2 p.m., $10/$6, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.rosendaletheatre.org.