Click PLAY and hear the inspiring, heartwarming story of how Deborah Mitchell, NJTAP Founder, met her teacher, mentor and friend, the renowned tap dancer,
Leslie "Bubba" Gaines.
“Miss Mitchell has repaid Mr Gaines.” - a quote from the New York Times.
You might be wondering the significance of that statement. Just who is this Mr Gaines, and what did I owe him?
Long before Mr Gaines became my mentor, he was born Leslie “Bubba” Gaines in 1912 in Waycross, Georgia. This world-renowned tap dancer danced on street corners and in carnivals prior to becoming one of the Three Dukes: Aristocrats of Dancing. As teenagers, the Three Dukes performed in concert with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, and at the Cotton Club. Later in his career, he performed for the USO and also became one of the world famous Copasetics.
But New Years Eve, 1979, as he was approaching 70 years of age, a chance encounter resulted in my meeting him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was a student of tap dancing, and a friend told me about some “old men” performing at the Academy. Having no money to afford a concert, I decided it would be good enough to see them in rehearsal. I drove to Brooklyn, parked outside of the Academy, fell asleep in my car, and waited.
At dawn, I slipped into the building through a door left open by men in the process of picking up the building’s garbage. Making my way through the auditorium, in the darkness, tap shoes in my purse, I found myself in the orchestra where I waited in anticipation for the rehearsal of the “old men.” I fell asleep.
I was awakened by the sound of voices and foot steps on the stage. Startled, I jumped to my feet, tap shoes falling out of my purse making a loud noise, and causing the men on the stage to stop. A tall distinguished looking gentleman came to the edge of the stage and wanted to know, “who was out there?” To which I responded, “just me!” Almost like a parent who caught a child misbehaving, he demanded I come up on the stage and explain who I was and why I was there. I told him I was waiting to see a group of old men dancers, to which he chuckled, and explained I was looking at them! They introduced themselves, and little did I know, I was in the midst of tap dance royalty. Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Fayard Nicholas, Charles Cook, Face Roberts, and Bubba Gaines.
Mr Gaines seemed somewhat shy, and I gravitated towards him, asking his name again. And it was at that moment that he insisted on knowing why I went to went to such an extent to see all of them. Once he found out how much I loved the dance, would go anywhere to learn more about it, would be willing to work tirelessly to improve, he took a chance on me. From that day forward, this master artist taught me everything he knew about tap dancing, including the rope, which his late partner Will Hutchinson perfected. Refusing any money for his work, Bubba simply asked me to pass on all he taught me to the next generation. I experienced a wonderful career, including the Cotton Club motion picture, the Paris and Broadway productions of Black and Blue, and worldwide tours with Cab Calloway as the Rhythm Queens with my partner Germaine Goodson. After Mr Gaines passed away at the age of 85, I paid forward the debt and founded New Jersey Tap Ensemble to preserve and promote this wonderful American art form. Some would say after more than 25 years, the debt has been paid - but as long as somebody wants to learn it, as Bubba requested of me, I will teach all I know.