John Bubbles revolutionized tap dance as the first tapper to drop his heels. By using his entire foot (heel and toe), he created rhythmically complex and syncopated footwork while maintaining a relaxed upper body. Today, we call this style rhythm tap.
Born John Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1902, Bubbles started performing at age 7. Though he had no formal training, he sang, told jokes and danced. In 1918, he teamed up with Ford Lee “Buck” Washington to fill a last-minute gap in a vaudeville show. Their musical comedy act “Buck and Bubbles” became a hit, and they remained together for nearly 40 years.
After some time on the vaudeville circuit with Buck, Bubbles’ voice changed, so he shifted his focus from singing to tap dancing. He first tried his luck at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, but he was laughed off the stage. A few years later, armed with the heel-dropping, improvised style he’d been crafting on the road, he came back and blew everyone away.
With Buck, Bubbles broke racial barriers. In 1931, they became the first African-American duo to play at Radio City Music Hall and the second to be featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1935, George Gershwin invited Bubbles to originate the role of Sportin’ Life in the opera Porgy and Bess. In the 1940s, he made appearances in several Hollywood films, including the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943).
After Buck died, Bubbles continued performing in television shows and musical specials until he became partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1967. He died in 1986 in Los Angeles. DT
Before Bubbles, tappers danced solely on their toes to upbeat, 2/4 timing in the style of tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Bubbles broke this mold by slowing down the tempo and extending his phrasing beyond the traditional eight bars. This allowed him more rhythmic freedom. He was also known for improvising his steps at each performance so he couldn’t be copied by other tap dancers.
Reverse trench In traditional trenches, the body is forward over the hips while the legs alternate in long backward slides. In Bubbles’ version—the reverse trench—the torso is held backward in the style of a cakewalk strut, and the legs slide forward.
Double over-the-tops In an over-the-top, the tapper kicks one leg low to the front and then jumps over that leg with the opposite leg, landing on one foot. Bubbles’ double over-the-tops alternate sides, one after the other.
- Michael Jackson named his pet chimpanzee Bubbles in honor of John Bubbles.
- Fred Astaire took tap lessons from Bubbles to prepare for his role as a dancing gambler in Swing Time (1936).
The Legacy Lives On
Bubbles’ unique style laid the groundwork for tap dance of the future. Among those he influenced directly were Fred Astaire, tapper and actress Eleanor Powell and Chuck Green of the vaudeville duo “Chuck and Chuckles” (whose act closely resembled “Buck and Bubbles”). Today, tap dancers like Jason Samuels Smith and Savion Glover use Bubbles’ approach to syncopation, improvisation and complexity.
“John Bubbles: The soul of rhythm tap,” by Jenai Cutcher, Dance Teacher, September 2011
Tap Works: A Tap Dictionary and Reference Manual, by Beverly Fletcher, Princeton Book Company, 2002
American Tap Dance Foundation: “Tap Dance Hall of Fame: John Bubbles”: atdf.org
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photo (top) by James Kriegsmann, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives