The soul of rhythm tap

“Tap is just about the hardest thing to explain. Just keep on tapping along. That’s about the size of it.” —John Bubbles (Bubbles as his signature role of Sportin' Life, in Porgy and Bess)

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: 

Print

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.

Movies

“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)

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