Feel the Floor: The Life and Legacy of Jazz Choreographer Buddy Bradley

In the era between the two World Wars, and after, Buddy Bradley revolutionized dance on two continents with African American jazz movement. In London and New York, he worked with the glamour boys of the stage: Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Balanchine, and Sir Frederick Ashton—and gifted dancers from Adele Astaire and Alicia Markova to a young aspirant named Audrey Hepburn—to revitalize theatrical dance with syncopation, swing, and sexy sways. Bradley’s African American tap and innovative coupling of dance to lyrics, character, and plot development established the ground for Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse. Feel the Floor: The Life and Legacy of Jazz Choreographer Buddy Bradley is the first to tell this story.

Interviewing dancers, students, actors, actresses, and choreographers who knew Bradley, delving into rare film footage, London archives, studying tap dance, visiting the Black Belt of Alabama, and the mountains of Georgia to reconstruct this transformative but elusive artist, Ms. Footer ushers Buddy Bradley to his rightful place, center stage. In recounting the story of this legendary choreographer, Ms. Footer spotlights the influence of African-American culture on international stages, the flow of transatlantic cultural exchanges, and social developments of the 20th century—as viewed through the unique lens of an African-American artist.

Intentional, talented, and endlessly charming, Bradley appeared completely at ease conquering novel territory. As London’s preeminent jazz and tap choreographer, he was the go-to creative for the British film industry, a frequent guest on the BBC, the genial host of visiting Bebop tap greats Baby Laurence and Teddy Hale, the welcoming haven for American dancers from the Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham companies, a knowledgeable consultant to Gene Kelly for casting An American in Paris, and the paramour of a string of snazzy girlfriends.

Yet, Bradley paid dearly for his career to flourish. His roots in rural Georgia, childhood in segregated Birmingham, teenage escape into the glittering Harlem Renaissance, and problematic integration of Broadway in the 1920s carried the weight of a larger history and created inherent tension. Bradley’s quest for individuality and independence, free from pre-determined expectations, was apparent not only in his life story but in his choreography. He often infused elements of ballet, Latin, and ballroom dance with tap steps he’d picked up in a blind alley in Harlem. Gentle and self-effacing, what Bradley didn’t realize was that his integration of jazz dance into theatre and his visionary development of choreography—as well as kindness—established an enduring legacy that soared beyond all constraints to attain the universal.