John Bubbles Portrait of John Bubbles in his best-remembered role as Sportin' Life in the original cast of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. (Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.)

"When he was ten, John W. Bubbles (1902-1986) teamed up with six-year-old "Buck" Washington. As Buck and Bubbles, the singing-dancing-comedy act lasted nearly half a century. They were featured in Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 and were the first black artists to play New York's Radio City Music Hall. Bubbles is best known for originating the role of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935). Yet his most significant contribution as an artist was to amalgamate jazz into tap dancing, placing his signature on the form during a vivid era of innovation. By adding complicated syncopations and heel drops to create off-beats, he altered accents, phrasing, and timing, simultaneously grounding rhythms and projecting an easy nonchalance. Long associated with the Hoofers Club in Harlem, Bubbles went from three-shows-a-day in vaudeville to Broadway and a stint in Hollywood, where he appeared in Varsity Show (1937), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and A Song Is Born (1948). He played the Palace Theater with Judy Garland in 1967 and appeared in Black Broadway (1979). Bubbles received the 1980 Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Learn more in John Bubbles, an essay by Margaret Morrison.