A celebration of Len‘s life will take place on March 15 at 2:30 pm, First Memorial Funeral Services, 602 Kingsway, Vancouver
Leonard Gibson was born in Alberta but moved to Vancouver with his parents and sister Thelma in the early nineteen thirties. By the time he was five years old he was earning a wage dancing on local stages. By the time he was ten, he was performing with groups such as the touring companies of the Eddie Cantor Show Blackstone the Magician. At thirteen, he won two talent contests with a prize of a Bulova watch and a silver cup. A year later, lying about his age, he landed a job in the floor show of the Mandarin Gardens, with tough to please customers. Len’s mother, Leona, called them “his bad boy days.”
As a teenager, Len studied with local dancer Mara McBirney. In 1947, Len had the experience that is the stuff of movie fantasy. He received a call from Katherine Dunham’s dance company to dance in place of someone who could not appear at that evening’s performance. The result was a scholarship to Katherine Dunham dance school in New York.
On his return to Vancouver, Len taught at McBirney’s dance school. Eventually, he formed his own dance company, the Negro Workshop Dance Group which he entered in the local provincial dance competitions. His choreographic piece, Gershwin Preludes, was performed by the British Columbia Ballet at the Canadian Ballet Festival held Ottawa in 1953.
Television and theatre were also major interests. Len choreographed, performed and sang in the CBC’s Bamboula which was the first live musical program broadcast by CBC Vancouver. It also had the distinction of having a multiracial cast. This was followed by choreography work on The Eleanor Collins Show, also at the CBC. For Theatre Under the Stars (also known as TUTS), he danced, acted and sang. Len’s horizons widened when he went to England. From there, he worked as a song and dance man on nightclubs, television and film all over Europe.
In the mid-nineteen sixties, Len moved to Toronto where he started a dance school and dance company, the Len Gibson Dance Ensemble. One of his most notable choreographed works performed by his dance company was Juke Joint, 100 Years of Black Dance in the New World. As well, he choreographed for television and film. Teaching had always been part of what Len did starting with teaching his sister and brother, Thelma and Chic, everything he learned. His teaching took him to such diverse places as Africa. But Len was also a student. He learned wherever he went about the local cultures that he was visiting.
Len returned to Vancouver in 1995 after closing his dance school in Toronto, but he did not retire from performing or encouraging young people to pursue a career in the performing arts. Performing, especially dancing, was his passion in life. Even at age eighty, he could always be persuaded to do a soft shoe or the splits, the latter much to the displeasure of his family and friends.
He taught and performed a huge variety of styles from ballet to jazz to modern to tap. He performed in theatres, on television and film and in nightclubs. In dance terms, he was a renaissance man, and many honoured him for it. His awards included Award of Distinction from the Black Dancers in Canada Association, the Harry Jerome Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Sam Payne Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Union of BC Performers/ACTRA and most recently, the West Coast Tap Dance Collective honoured him.
His phone message always reminded you of how special you are, and he finished all calls with “I love you more.” Len will be greatly missed by all who know him for his love of life and the world around him.