Donning an elaborate silky robe and golden headdress, Bubba Gong leads his dance students around the Foothill College studio in a line during a recent rehearsal. They follow him hand in hand, all dressed in white, doing a grapevine step.
The line spirals in on itself, and Gong's students surround him in an ever-shrinking circle. He beams. Under his bright headdress, he looks like the center of a flower.
The visual simile is apt. For 25 years now, Gong has been the charismatic heart of Foothill's dance program. He was the first full-time dance instructor at the school, and founded its Foothill Repertory Dance Company.
On June 3 and 4, he'll celebrate the quarter-century mark with three dance performances encompassing a variety of styles. Gong will take the stage at Smithwick Theatre along with about 100 other dancers: students, company members, guest artists and alumni.
Foothill graduate Julio Fabian, for one, says he wouldn't miss it. He was a company member a decade ago and is now a DJ and producer in Las Vegas, going by DJ Fabian. At the June shows, he'll perform a tribute to Michael Jackson with other Vegas dancers, he said in an interview.
"I just want to say thank you (to Gong) for all the opportunities. He's one of the reasons why I'm where I'm at in my life and my career," said Fabian, who also got to try choreographing and producing while dancing at Foothill.
"When you see Bubba for the first time, you're just blown away by his energy and passion and what he brings to the stage," Fabian said. "It just draws you in."
Gong has been drawing in fans for years. He originally got connected with Foothill while he was a Stanford undergrad, dancing in shows at Great America to make money for school. Bernadine Fong, then a dean, now Foothill president emerita, spotted him tapping in "Singin' in the Rain" and offered him a job.
Gong taught tap part-time while in school and then went pro for a few years before returning to Foothill full-time. He also went back to Stanford to earn a master's in dance education in 1992.
Gong had been a performer since he was a child, serving as a Walt Disney "Kid of the Kingdom" and appearing in a national orange-juice commercial. As an adult, he performed on Broadway in "Flower Drum Song" and acted on television in "Trapper John, M.D." But teaching turned out to be his real love.
"It's the most unexpected career path that I could have imagined," Gong says in his Foothill office, in the company of dramatic black-and-white photos of dancers and a poster for "A Chorus Line." It's a week of many rehearsals, and he has traces of white stage makeup under his eyebrows.
"I found my true calling in life," he says with a friendly Southern accent. "Foothill has provided me with a home for my dancing dreams. I was never about research or academia; it's really been in the trenches with students."
Foothill also gave Gong the chance to create the dance program he envisioned, something broader than ballet and modern. "I wanted to go beyond European dance forms," he says. Although the program values classical technique, it also has classes in tap, ballroom, line dancing and various ethnic traditions. Foothill dancers have studied Peking opera dance styles as well as Russian, Afro-Haitian, Caribbean, Japanese and many others, Gong says.
He's also made an effort to welcome people of all ages and body types to his daytime and evening classes, he says. "Find your inner beauty, and eat, and be healthy and be well."
Diversity is something that Gong has been thinking about ever since he was a Chinese-American child growing up in a small town in Mississippi. Named Sing Gong, he called himself Bubba because that was the name his friends had. When Gong moved from Mississippi to attend Stanford, a visit to San Francisco's Chinatown gave him culture shock: "Everyone looked like me!"
Later, he was among the first Asian-American actors to work on "General Hospital," he says, adding that the experience also gave him a sensitivity to body-image issues. "I was fired, because I couldn't keep the weight off," he says.
In Southern California, he served on the board of the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists, working for diversity in casting and, he says, "trying to expand the notions of what Asian actors can be." He acted in the pilot of an Asian-themed sitcom, "Fortune Cookie," but it wasn't picked up.
"'The Cosby Show' went on the next year. I was so thrilled that he made it," Gong says of Bill Cosby. "He just broke so many stereotypes."
One of the new dance works that Gong will premiere at the June concerts reflects his experiences as an Asian American. He choreographed "Two Worlds, One Heart" as a contemporary ballet about being "very American" and also "being a good Chinese son."
"Sometimes," he says, "you're conflicted."
Other works planned for the show include a Peking opera-based piece with music by Yo-Yo Ma from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in which Gong's spouse, John Celona, will also perform; tributes to Bob Fosse choreography and Big Band music; and a fusion piece inspired by the film "Burlesque."
Besides DJ Fabian, other scheduled alumni performers are singer and dancer Ted Zervoulakos, hip-hop dancer Jelanie Galang, tap dancer Lisa Marie Woody, contemporary dancer Stephanie Anderson and lyrical dancer Tiffanie Lee.
Guest acts include Gold Star Hip Hop and Dance Connection of Palo Alto, where Gong's assistant director, Tami Burton, is director of the performing company.
The annual Foothill dance shows are often family affairs, and this one will be no exception. Gong's sisters, Diana Chan and Sherrie Taguchi, will dance, and one of the numbers is his "Moon River Sonatina for Mom."
Gong's mother, Palo Alto resident Magen Gong-Jensen, is also a regular performer at her son's shows. At a rehearsal in the Foothill studio, she mingles with the younger dancers, saying with a smile, "I'm the mother of all these hundreds."
The dancers run an energetic company number to "Firework" by Katy Perry, hitting their chests repeatedly when Perry sings, "Boom, boom, boom." Then there's a smaller piece set to "All That Jazz" from the musical "Chicago." Its slinky, deliberate, Fosse-fied steps were inspired in part by Gong's black cat, his mother says.
When he's not dancing with his students, Gong calls out encouragement and corrections: "Point those toes!" "Work it!" "Smile! You're beautiful!"
All the dancers are dressed in white, with costumes they picked out themselves: dresses and pants, tights and tops. There are indeed different ages and body types, and no one seems shy about tucking into the homemade chocolate-chip cookies that someone brought.
Sporting a sequined white baseball cap, Gong-Jensen looks fondly at her son across the room. "He started dancing in my tummy," she says. "When he got out he was tapping."
What: Three 25th-anniversary performances by Foothill College dancers, alumni and guests
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. June 3 and 4, and 2 p.m. June 4
Cost: Tickets are $25 general, $20 for students and seniors, and $15 for children under 10. Reserved-section tickets are $100. The event is a fundraiser for the dance program.
Info: Go to foothill.edu or call 650-949-7360.