Since he served as inspiration for one of the steps in one of our Masters Challenges, I thought it would be good to talk about the great John Bubbles, the father of rhythm tap. You've likely heard of Bill Robinson, one the most legendary and influential tap dancers ever. He was the first to bring the dance up on it's toes and really get intricate and precise on a whole other level. Well, the next person to really change the tap game was John Sublett, better known as John Bubbles. He and his piano-playing partner, "Buck" Washington performed as the duo "Buck and Bubbles". They were wildly popular and were the first black performers to play Radio City Music Hall. In fact, they were featured on the first ever BBC television broadcast in 1936 making them the first black people ever on television.
Bubbles ushered in a whole new style of tap by taking the tempo down a bit, and pumping up the complication of the steps, and, importantly, dropping his heels to the floor to create dynamic rhythmic accents. His style was so influential that it became ubiquitous and now it can be hard to see how revolutionary it was.
In fact, like Bill Robinson before him, the mastery of John Bubbles can at times be obscured by the context of his time. While Bubbles's dancing is undeniably great, I think watching him dance can be tricky in some ways. Like so many black dancers of his era, he often performed as the help, or at best as the entertainment within the movie, often with white people looking on. Even some of his mannerisms are at once charming and affected, even bordering on stereotypical. But to say that John Bubbles adhered to some of the tropes of his time is to take nothing away from his greatness or his achievements. That is why it is so important to understand the context in which these great jazz artists operated. So that we peel back some layers and see more clearly when we watch them, and know what to look at and what to look past.
I've attached a playlist from a great YouTube channel, What the Eye Hears, where they have lots of tap dancing clips. Take a look and check out a truly great dancer and performer. You'll see that whatever outfit he is wearing, whatever character he is playing, or whatever the dynamic between him and his costars, his amazingness always shines through.
Also for my money he has the best lock-turns in all of show business. Enjoy!