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Afternoon Delight Dance Series #3: The Great Mr. Bubbles
by Jerome Weeks 4 May 2011

John Bubbles was the most important tap dance artist, ever – he even taught Astaire. This number finds “Bubbles” at his peak, choreographed by Busby Berkeley and dancing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra.


Afternoon Delight is a daily diversion for when you’re just back from lunch, but not quite ready to get back to work. Check back tomorrow at 1 p.m. for another one

You’ve probably noticed something different about this Afternoon Delight: apparently, no video.

That’s because this YouTube video has copyright restrictions that prevent it from being embedded in other sites. But you can go here to watch it, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough — if you’re interested in seeing the most important American tap dancer, ever.

It’s not Fred Astaire or Savion Glover. In fact, this guy taught Fred Astaire tap.

It’s John “Bubbles” Sublett, and this is a scene from the classic Cabin in the Sky, directed by Vincente Minelli and featuring just about every major African-American star in 1943: Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Butterfly McQueen and all of them backed by Duke Ellington. In his career, Sublett started as part of a headlining vaudeville duo, Buck and Bubbles, and that’s his partner, “Buck” Washington at the piano. Some idea of just how big a deal they were, even to white America: They were the first African-Americans to play Radio City Music Hall, and they didn’t tour on the all-black TABA theater circuit. Bubbles was also quite the singer: He went on to originate the role of Sportin’ Life in the 1935 premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

But as noted Monday for #1 in this series, I’m interested in showing how black American theater artists dealt with the period’s segregation and humiliating minstrelsy  — and still created great art. Even in the midst of this celebration of strutting black talent, and featuring such a star as Sublett, he sings a song called “Shine,” a racial slur (“just because my teeth are pearly and just because I always wear a smile… that’s why they call me Shine”).

But look at what he does with it. The uncredited choreography is by Busby Berkeley, but it was Sublett who invented “rhythm tap” – hitting his heel between the beats, making his dancing more like a jazz solo, an influence that carries down even to Michael Jackson. Forget the technical dance stuff, just watch and you can see what Astaire gleaned from him — how he’s so crisp yet seems to float, constantly inventive and expressive, a joy to watch.

Bubbles, indeed.