We first met Johnnie Hobbs at Paula Abdul’s 51st Birthday celebration at Aventine. The music icon announced Johnnie as her good friend, and his birthday present to her was a performance like none other. Johnnie quickly took center stage and in front of a live band and a crowd of people performed some fo the most intricate and beautiful tap dance numbers seen in years and for some, ever seen.
After his performance we got to chatting with Johnnie and became intrigued by his recent short film Nostalgia and his plans for a feature film based around the world of tap dance, a world many would call a lost art form.
Check out our exclusive interview!
PPLA: When did you first start dancing? How old were you?
JH: I was fifteen when I started tap dancing.
PPLA: Isn’t that traditionally considered late for dancers?
JH: It is, but it’s actually a regular thing. There are a lot of dancers that I know that started when they were twenty. I taught myself how to tap when I was fifteen. I saw Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk on Broadway and I immediately fell in love with tap. My mom’s a dancer and choreographer in Philadelphia, that’s where I’m from. I took tap class when I was 6 or 7 but those were basics “shuffle-step shuffle-step”. Then I saw the show when I was fifteen and started up again.
PPLA: When did you decide to pursue dance as a career?
JH: Well I went to school for acting. My dad is an actor and director and he teaches at my college at University of the Arts. I graduated in 2004 where I worked in Philadelphia for a year and a half and then I moved out here [Los Angeles] for acting only. I taught tap classes but I was focused on acting, however I got more jobs as a tap dancer. What’s funny about it is that I never wanted to pursue my life as a dancer, ever.
PPLA: How did your performance at Paula Abdul’s birthday come about?
JH: She saw me at a show called “The Show” in Hollywood. I was tap dancing, and I went up to her and talked to her about my movie. That was when I first met her. Then two or three weeks later, I was invited me to her birthday party. I asked if I could dance for her birthday as a gift to her. She introduced me as a tap dancer and that was her present. And she’s a tap dancer, you know so she understands.
PPLA: Do you think tap dancing is a dying art form?
JH: No! I don’t think it’s a dying art form.
PPLA: You hear about ballet and there’s so many of these high-qualified ballerinas that can’t get jobs. Is tap dancing being affected in the same way? Or the performing arts as a whole?
JH: I think [tap dancing] is an art form that ebbs and flows like anything else. Tap dancing was huge in the 20’s to the late 50’s, early 60s’. Dancers were working, making a living. Then things changed. Society wanted something different and got tired of it. Vietnam had happened, Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, these real things were happening. Rock & Roll came around, society changes so anything that surrounds it changes. All this means less work for tap dancers. A lot of the African-Americans in Hollywood and stage that were tap dancing were acting as maids, lazy buffoons and these other kind of stereotypes, but those were some of the only jobs they could get. The next generation began to look at these roles in a different context and tap dancing was seen as this shameful act. In the 80’s performers like Gregory Hines made it [tap] prevalent, cool. His movies Tap and White Nights and other documentaries gave the dance the resurgence it needed. In the 90’s when Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk went to Broadway the whole tap scene exploded and merged with hip-hop. People started working more and getting calls because the dance had a face. So everything ebbs and flow. You know Chloe Arnold who is an amazing tap dancer and teacher once said, “Tap dancing is grass roots until it has its moment in the sun again.” I think it’s not in the commercial limelight right now.
PPLA: Let’s talk about your film Nostalgia. How did that come about?
JH: I was introduced to musicals at a very early age. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Bill Robinson, Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, all of those things that my mom introduced me to. When I was fourteen or fifteen my Dad introduced me to Sidney Lumet films and I became immersed in film. When I was 22, I thought there has to be a way for me to make a film that my mom and dad will like. I saw this old man dancing on the streets of Philadelphia, and people were throwing change at him and kind of laughing at him. I asked him what he was doing and he showed me a couple of dance steps.Then someone threw change down and he stopped and said “I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love.” I thought to myself, who takes care of this man? Do they approve of it? And what did he do before this moment? So that time mixed with my love for old school performers is where Nostalgia came from.
PPLA: So it’s kind of like an ode to your parents ?
JH: It’s an ode to my parents, my grandma, the hoofers [a name for tap dancers], and Art. Art is the man’s name that I saw dancing on the street, I never saw him after that. It’s a short film starring Dule Hill from Psych and The West Wing.
PPLA: How was that working with him?
JH: It was amazing. He is a very generous soul, and he was in the original cast of Bring in ‘da Noise Bring in ‘da Funk. I came to him with nothing but respect–he is the reason why I’m dancing.
PPLA: So you were able to work with someone that you looked up to?
JH: What was great about it was that my dad is in it [the film] as the main character, I worked with Dule Hill, and Jason Samuel Smith is also an original cast member of Bring in ‘da Noise Bring in ‘da Funk. Also the day that we started working together, I kid you not, was on February 14th Valentines Day and then I found out a year later that February 14th is Gregory Hines’ birthday.
PPLA: Wow, that’s a good omen! So you directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film. What are your plans for Nostalgia now?
JH: My plans are to make a feature and respect the culture of tap dance and other forms of dance.
PPLA: What do you think of these franchises like Save the Last Dance and Step Up?
JH: I’ll tell you this, I think they are great and I respect them on a level. I think every generation has their Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, studio factory-driven films that are commercialized. But they are bullshit. I went to Step Up and paid money to see it. The dancing is always amazing, but as an artist and director I think its bullshit. Those plots and scripts, in my opinion seemed quickly smushed together. They dumb it down for audiences that I think are smarter than that. Those are not the kind of dance movies I want to make. I am a purist. I am going to be making a movie of the pure art form, old-school. That’s the kind of shit I’m into.
PPLA: Where can we see your film?
JH: We are not sure yet, we are considering putting it online. The feature film is already written. The thing with Nostalgia, if it happens in 3 years or 10 years it doesn’t matter to me, it’s the idea that is important. This is a slow grind that is extremely, extremely important to me cause I’m not just making a movie for myself; I’m doing it for a culture.
Watch the trailer for Nostalgia