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Jan 24, 2011 - Headliners    18 Comments

Great granduncle Bubba Gaines, the tap dancer

Back in 1998, I briefly fulfilled a dream of taking tap dance lessons. I found a small studio in Brooklyn, got a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes with taps, and learned to “shuffle, ball, change” across the floor. Much to my disappointment, though, I wasn’t a natural. I wanted to move like Gregory Hines, and the many great hoofers who preceded him. Little did I know that I was actually related to one of those greats–Leslie “Bubba” Gaines.

A few years ago, in a conversation that my aunt had with a rediscovered cousin, it was learned that there was more to the name Leslie Gaines, which was all that we had. He said, “You’ve heard of Bubba, right?”

I went straight to Google. The first hit was Leslie “Bubba” Gaines’ 1997 obituary from The New York Times.

As the story goes, Bubba’s dancing talent was discovered by Bill Robinson, Mr. Bojangles himself, on the streets of Harlem. Born in Georgia, Bubba was a son of my great-great-grandmother Annie.

Bubba was an amateur boxer in his younger days. From that experience, he developed his famous jump-rope tap dance routine. His protégée, Deborah Mitchell, has a tap dance company in New Jersey and has performed the routine as a tribute to her mentor. (Check out this New York Times article from May 2010 to learn about the New Jersey Tap Dance Ensemble.)

As part of the tap dance group The Three Dukes, Bubba performed around the world early on in his career. He served in WWII, and mentioned in a New York Magazine article from 1979 that he had earned five battle stars. In addition, Bubba was an emcee and a performer with the U.S.O. for two decades. When he got older, he was a member of the Copasetics, which was composed of celebrated, veteran tap pros.

I regret that I didn’ t know Bubba existed until it was too late to meet him. With both of us residing in New York, perhaps I could’ve gone to see him perform. And, oh, the stories he must’ve had! Fortunately, there are many writings about Bubba Gaines so that I can get a sense of his personality.

Among many things, he was an “athletic virtuoso” (New York Magazine, 3/15/82) and a “delightful conversationalist” (Tap Dance: A Beginner’s Guide, 1983).

Here’s a short clip of Bubba performing with members of the Copasetics, Honi Coles and Charles (Cookie) Cook. Bubba is on the far right. They are demonstrating an old tap routine called “The B.S. Chorus.” B.S. Chorus performed by Cookie , Coles and Gaines in 1974

(Top photo courtesy of Jeanne Collins. All other photos courtesy of the American Tap Dance Federation, From top to bottom: The Three Dukes (Bubba Gaines, far right); Bubba Gaines in the 1977 documentary “Great Feats of Feet”; Bubba (far left) and The Copasetics in rehearsal, New Paltz, N.Y.; The Copasetics in performance.