I’ve been captivated by Jesco White ever since a friend gave me a copy of the underground documentary Dancing Outlaw five years ago. Jesco White isn’t just an outlaw and tap dancer; he’s also an Elvis impersonating drug addict with a deep Appalachian family history.
Jesco’s wife, Norma Jean White, provides a fitting description of Jesco in Dancing Outlaw: “Jessie can be three people: he can be Jessie, he can be Jesco, and he can be Elvis.” Jessie is the sweet man she fell in love with; Jesco is “The Devil in his self” who threatens to send her “to bed in a coffin”; and Elvis is Jesco’s alter ego.
The White Family History
Jesco White and his family live in the heart of Appalachia: Bandytown, Boone County, West Virginia. Jesco’s father, D. Ray White, was a regionally famous tap dancer known for his unique dancing styles. D. Ray White was tragically murdered in 1985, as chronicled in Dancing Outlaw. Jesco learned everything he knows about tap dancing from his father and he carries on his father’s traditions of Appalachian-style tap dancing, calling himself “the last mountain dancer.”
Although the White Family is also known for their rowdy behavior and run-ins with the law, Jesco’s family gained recognition and respect over the years because of D. Ray and Jesco’s tap dancing. Jesco was first recognized for his dancing by PBS’s “Different Drummer” series, and PBS then hired director Jacob Young to make the documentary Dancing Outlaw, which is just as much about D. Ray and the rest of the White family as it is about Jesco.
Dancing Outlaw, the Documentary
Jesco White gained a cult-status following as the “dancing outlaw” in 1991 after Jacob Young made his documentary about Jesco by the same name. The film covers five main topics in Jesco’s life: his rocky relationship with his significantly older wife; his life as an outlaw and drug addict; his father’s death; his hobby as an Elvis impersonator; and, of course, his tap-dancing. The film also covers his father’s tap-dancing and his family’s life in Appalachia.
Tom and Roseanne Arnold discovered Jesco through the Dancing Outlaw documentary and made plans with director Jacob Young to produce a sequel: Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco goes to Hollywood. Partially funded by Tom Arnold, the documentary chronicles Jesco’s trip to Hollywood to appear as a guest star on Roseanne.
In Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco goes to Hollywood, Jesco takes the first airplane flight of his life to Los Angeles. While there, Jesco dresses as Elvis and tap dances through the streets of Hollywood to a boombox, visits Elvis’s star on the Walk of Fame, and shops for Elvis memorabilia to add to his collection back home. The film covers Jesco’s appearance on Roseanne, which includes a short tap-dance. The end of the film focuses on Jesco’s swastika tattoo (received in jail), which Tom Arnold pays to have covered up at a local tattoo parlor. Jesco has been working on a career as a tap-dancing Elvis ever since.
Jesco White in 2010
Jesco White has gained quite a following since Dancing Outlaw was released nearly two decades ago. Jesco and the White family are the subject of two 2009 independent documentaries. Jesco has also been featured in several television documentaries and has been referred to in countless popular songs.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a documentary directed by Johnny Knoxville, focusing on the history of the White Family. The film premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
Dominic Murphy directed the documentary White Lightnin’ about tap dancing legend D. Ray White. This film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Despite his popularity and cult following, Jesco seems to be just as misdirected as ever. In 2006, Jesco’s friends and fans held “Jesco-fest,” a celebration of his 50th birthday, the 15th anniversary of Dancing Outlaw, and a fundraiser to help raise money for his winter bills. In 2009, his wife Norma Jean passed away and he was arrested on drug distribution conspiracy charges.
Thanks to the original Dancing Outlaw documentary, the White family is not only legendary in West Virginia, but also continues to build a name for itself in cult-film circles worldwide. The 2009 documentaries show that the Whites have no intention of changing their outlaw ways, but they do intend to continue putting on a show.