The father of rhythm tap

Bubbles (left) and Buck’s vaudeville act lasted nearly 40 years.

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

Style

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.

Buck played, and Bubbles tapped.

Movement Vocabulary

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.

Fun Facts

  • 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.

Resources:

Print:

“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

Web:

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

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox