1. Who is John William Sublett?
2. What is Bubbles’ nickname?
3. Who was John Bubbles’ partner?
4. How old was Bubbles when he first started performing with Buck?
5. Buck and Bubbles were the first African-Americans to perform at what famous New York City venue?
6. What are some of the contributions John Bubbles made to tap dance?
7. Name a movie featuring the duo Buck and Bubbles.
8. John Bubbles originated what famous Gershwin role?
9. How did Bubbles keep other dancers from stealing his steps?
10. What legendary pop icon named his pet chimpanzee after John Bubbles?
1. John Bubbles; 2. The Father of Rhythm Tap; 3. Ford Lee “Buck” Washington; 4. 10. Buck was 6; 5. Radio City Music Hall; 6. change in tempos, dropping
heels, long phrases, syncopations, dynamics; 7. Varsity Show, Cabin In the Sky, Atlantic City, Mantan Messes Up, A Song Is Born; 8. Sportin’ Life in Porgy and
Bess; 9. by always changing them; 10. Michael Jackson
Photo courtesty of Dance Magazine Archives
John Bubbles entered the Hoofers Club for the first time in 1920 when he was just 18 years old. Already a singer, he had hopes of becoming a dancer, too, and knew that the Hoofers Club was the place to go. (In the 1920s and ’30s, this back room in a Harlem comedy club was the most popular place for tap dancers to hang out and jam; they’d gather in the back and dance for each other in an atmosphere of friendly competition.) Bubbles stepped onto the floor, did a strut and a turn and got laughed right out of the club. That embarrassing moment was all the motivation he needed to become one of the greatest tap dancers of his time. Often called “The Father of Rhythm Tap” because of his inventive musicality and low-to-the-ground style, Bubbles pioneered a new way of tapping that laid the groundwork for how it’s practiced today by dancers such as Jason Samuels Smith.
After his first Hoofers Club debacle, Bubbles, along with his vaudeville partner Ford Lee “Buck” Washington, went west, touring the Orpheum circuit—one of the biggest chains of vaudeville theaters in the nation. (As African-American men, Buck and Bubbles broke many color barriers throughout their careers: Unlike most black performers, the duo never appeared on the black Theater Owners Booking Association circuit, which offered less prestige and pay than white vaudeville.) It was during this Orpheum circuit tour that Bubbles began to practice tap on his own and incorporate his moves into their act (which they’d continue for more than 20 years). In 1922, an engagement at the Palace Theatre took the pair back to New York, and Bubbles went back to the Hoofers Club. This time, things were much different.
Amid the flourishing cultural activity of the Harlem Renaissance, Bubbles was breathing new life into tap dance. Though he was self-taught, he used old steps in new ways, drawing inspiration from other performers he toured with, including Lancashire-clog dancer Harland Dixon. He added endless complexity to the form by changing the tempo and experimenting with variations on steps and rhythmic syncopations. Most tap dance at the time was done to a fast, two-beat feel common to early jazz tunes. Steps were interspersed with jumps, splits and large movements. Bubbles instead divided each measure into four beats, thus slowing the tempo and leaving him more room to add sounds. Although he executed big steps like double over-the-tops and backward trenches, much of his dancing was done with a relaxed, casual air. This created one of the greatest dichotomies of the form: complex footwork with an easy feel.
Though it’s a common practice within tap culture to “steal” steps one sees others execute, Bubbles did all he could to keep fellow tap dancers from copying his steps. His ever-changing intricacies of steps and time signatures meant that his competitors never saw the same step twice. The complexity of his steps came from his heels. Whereas dancers before him, most notably Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, stayed up on their toes, Bubbles is credited with being the first to drop his heels, thus adding a variety of new accents and syncopations to his phrasing. The low tones of his heel drops allowed him to establish unusual counterpoint rhythms within his dancing. He made longer, more dynamic phrases that would not become widely popular until the advent of bebop in the mid-1940s.
After years performing in vaudeville and appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931, the laidback style and ingenious choreography of John Bubbles was well-known. In 1935, George Gershwin chose him to originate the role of Sportin’ Life in his new opera Porgy and Bess, in which Bubbles sang “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In the late 1930s and ’40s, Buck and Bubbles went to Hollywood and appeared in several motion pictures, including Varsity Show, Cabin in the Sky and A Song Is Born. The pair were the first black artists to perform at Radio City Music Hall and most likely the first to appear on television, in a broadcast from London.
Although Buck died in 1955, Bubbles continued to work in television as a guest performer on The Lucy Show and The Tonight Show. He traveled with Bob Hope to perform in Vietnam and only stopped performing after suffering a stroke in 1967. He mentored Chuck Green, of Chuck and Chuckles, and remained active in the tap community well into the ’80s. When asked about Bubbles’ lasting influence, Jason Samuels Smith replied: “He may be the most stylistically influential tap dancer in history. His phrasing, vocabulary and execution were futuristic, not to mention flawless. Dancers today debate whether he was the greatest ever. He is.”
Did You Know?
* Michael Jackson named his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, after John Bubbles.
* Fred Astaire took tap lessons from Bubbles to prepare for his role in the 1936 movie Swing Time.
* Bubbles performed with Judy Garland in 1967 at the Palace Theatre.
* In 1980, he received the Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists.
* Though he originated the role of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, Bubbles was not on the original cast recording, released in 1940—he was replaced by Avon Long.
* While performing on tour together, Bubbles is said to have told Elvera Davis (about her then 2-year-old son Sammy Davis Jr.): “I don’t mind him watching from the wings, but I don’t want him stealing all my steps.” Davis Jr. later played Sportin’ Life in the 1959 movie Porgy and Bess. DT
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns. 2nd ed., Da Capo, 1994.
The Book of Tap by Jerry Ames and Jim Siegelman. David McKay, 1977.
Shoot Me While I’m Happy by Jane Goldberg. Woodshed Prod., 2008.
“Bubbles Bounces Back,” Ebony, January 1965.
“Varsity Show,” Warner Bros., 1937.
“Cabin In the Sky,” MGM, 1943.
“A Song Is Born,” Samuel Goldwyn, 1948.
Jenai Cutcher is a tap dancer, writer and filmmaker. She holds an MFA in dance from The Ohio State University.
Photo: Bubbles as his signature role, Sportin' Life, in Porgy and Bess (courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives)
In the early days of college dance programs, tap wasn’t considered a suitable pursuit. Pioneer Margaret H’Doubler, who founded the first dance major in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1926, specifically cited tap as not mature enough to be considered a fine art and thus unworthy of college study. More than half a century later, the Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management at Oklahoma City University was founded with the specific goal of legitimizing American dance forms, including tap, jazz and theater dance. Today, the department, which is rooted in musical theater, has one of the country’s most extensive tap programs: Dance performance majors are required to take at least six semesters of tap.
Ballet and modern still dominate the college dance landscape, but tap is making headway. Numerous dance departments now offer tap as either a required degree component or an elective. All dancers, regardless of focus, benefit from tap training. Students broaden their dance knowledge when they learn about tap history, which has its own distinct lineage, vocabulary and traditions. And the study of tap is inherently the study of rhythm, offering a unique mode of musical training. Here, a few college tap instructors discuss their approaches.
Theory and Practice
Margaret Morrison, adjunct professor at Barnard College in New York, teaches a course called “Tap as an American Art Form,” which covers tap history from its roots in the 1600s to the present. The class meets twice a week, and Morrison engages her students—a mix of experienced tappers and beginners, dance and non-dance majors from Barnard and Columbia University—using a dual format: During one period, she lectures; the other is spent tapping.
Early in the semester, for example, Morrison talks about the meeting of African-Americans and Anglo-Americans in North America. In the studio, she teaches the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson routine “Doin’ the New Low Down” from 1928. It opens with time steps, shuffles and flaps. Morrison’s less experienced dancers practice basic skills, while more advanced tappers hone their style and tonal quality, aiming to achieve Robinson’s beautiful clarity and precision. This routine, Morrison explains, “is an example of how tap dance had pulled itself away from the minstrel stereotype.” (Robinson, who was born in 1878, started in minstrelsy as a young boy.) This leads her back to her lecture material. “We deal very heavily with the racial history of tap dance and what’s going on in American culture during different eras.”
Watch and Learn
Like Morrison, Anita Feldman, an assistant professor at Hofstra University, strives to provide a comprehensive tap education in her two levels of technique classes. Her students learn various styles, including Broadway tap, rhythm tap and contemporary tap, and she complements their physical practice with research assignments. For example, when learning about different tap techniques, she asks her students to watch videos of at least three tap artists—her list of suggestions includes renowned hoofers like Gregory Hines and Jimmy Slyde, as well as more contemporary artists, such as Max Pollack and Roxane Butterfly. (Feldman recommends her students search for videos online.) She asks them to write a one-page analysis of the dancers’ performances, comparing their individual styles and identifying characteristics that would—or would not—fit Feldman’s definition of contemporary tap. Besides learning how to research and write about dance, this type of assignment familiarizes students with professional tap artists and their work.
At the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Jeannie Hill teaches tap with an eye—or rather, ear—toward jazz and tap traditions, emphasizing the connection between music and dance. Listening skills are critical in tap, says Hill. When teaching a new phrase, she starts by having her students vocalize the rhythm, sometimes with nonsense syllables, other times using words, which she says invokes the storytelling aspect of dance. For example, “I went to the store, I went to the store, I went to the store and I had to get more,” becomes “Shuffle shuffle step, shuffle shuffle step, shuffle shuffle step shuffle shuffle step step.”
Hill also actively involves John Strassburg, an accompanist who plays piano, drums and keyboard in her classes. Hill’s students frequently improvise to Strassburg’s live music. And she has the dancers “trade” rhythms with him. For example, the students will stand in a circle, each dancer taking a turn creating a two-measure rhythm. After one student taps, Strassburg repeats the rhythm back—or responds with a slight variation. This musical conversation hones the dancers’ listening skills and provides a deep rhythmic understanding that can be applied to any movement style.
Spreading the Word
Morrison, Feldman and Hill all hope that tap inspires their students, whether that means they delve deeper into the form or simply gain confidence expressing themselves. At Brigham Young University in Utah, Colleen West, who coordinates the dance department’s elective tap program, reaches beyond her classroom. After hearing from students who wanted additional outlets to practice and perform, West created Foot Poetry Tap Dance Ensemble, a community-based company. Most of the group’s 30 members are either current or former BYU students. West choreographs for the group and encourages the dancers to create works. And she hopes to launch a program that will take Foot Poetry into local schools. “I want them to fall in love with tap,” she says, “and I want to share my love of tap with them.” DT
Jenai Cutcher is a tap dancer who writes and makes films about dance. She holds an MFA in dance from The Ohio State University.
Photo: Tap students at Oklahoma City University (courtesy of Oklahoma City University)