In the 1940s, African-American tap dancer Sandman Sims (1917–2003) broke out as a favorite at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. Within a decade, tap dancing's prominence declined. Sims worked tirelessly to revive it as a form of art and entertainment, helping bring about a tap renaissance in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Howard Sims was born on January 24, 1917, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but was raised in Los Angeles as one of 12 siblings. Sims's father worked as a barber and taught all of his children to dance. As Sims later recalled of his childhood in George T. Nierenberg's 1979 documentary No Maps on My Taps, “When you're first born you start crawlin' and when you get through crawlin' you stand up and walk. When I got through crawlin' I had to stand up and dance 'cuz I had to dance in a hurry to catch up with my brothers and sisters.”
As a youngster, Sims was considered the most uncoordinated member of his family, but he stuck with dancing, and it became a lifelong avocation. He spent the better portion of his childhood on L.A.'s street corners dancing for money, beginning around age four or five. His older brother frequently brought the youngster with him, giving him no choice, because the coins rolled in when young Sims started to jump and jive. “They'd always want to see that little fellow dance. That little clumsy fellow,” the dancer explained in No Maps on My Taps.
While growing up, Sims perfected his steps and developed his style on the street corners, where “challenge” dances were common. In an era when dancing skills were common, dancers would throw down their tap shoes in front of one another to challenge them to a duel. As a self-taught dancer, Sims appreciated these challenges because they provided a learning opportunity: while watching these duels, he picked up new ideas. The rich kids received dancing lessons at the dance school while the poor kids trained on the streets, and in Sims's view, the street-smart dancers were better. “Our dancing was from the soul,” he stated during Nierenberg's documentary. “Like what we felt, what we heard, the sound. Their dancing was from count, like ‘one, two, three, four, five, six.’ In a way, it all blended in, but it was a difference in the dance. It's day and night.”
Despite dissing dance schools, Sims was interested in knowing what they were teaching that he might be missing. Speaking to Chicago Tribune interviewer Mary Campbell, he recalled being arrested as a teen for loitering outside of an L.A. tap school. As Sims told the judge, he was not loitering; he was watching the instructors through the window so he could become a better dancer. “He told them to clear the chairs and desks away and to let him see what I did. I danced a little bit and he said, ‘Case dismissed!’”
Eventually casting about for a paying career, Sims tried to make it as a prizefighter. His dancing helped him as a boxer. Just like tap dancers, successful boxers bring balance, nimble footwork, and self-expression into the ring. After Sims broke his hand a couple of times, he realized that he did not have what he needed to become a real contender and turned back to tap. Sometime in the 1940s, he hitched a ride to New York City and landed in Harlem, where he hooked up with the local “hoofers.” The Harlem Hoofers danced a distinct variety of tap that relied on the whole foot to make sound and not just the heel and toe. Sims melded this style into his tap dancing and fell under the tutelage of Chuck Green, who was one-half of the famed comedy/dancing duo “Chuck and Chuckles.”
In New York City, Sims hit the vaudeville circuit and continued to perfect his steps on the street corners. He always carried his tap shoes in his back pockets so that he was ready for a street challenge; through these duels, dancers knew just where they stood in the local tap-dancing hierarchy. “Dancing is competitive,” Sims recalled in No Maps on My Taps. “It's like fighting. You think you're in shape, or you do more steps than anybody else. Well, they'll compare you right away. See, the public is real funny. They want to look to see who the best is.”
In the 1940s, Sims decided to try for a spot at the Apollo. Since the 1930s, the famed Harlem, New York, theater had been hosting weekly amateur night competitions as a way to identify untapped African-American talent and nurture aspiring performers. The crowd was brutal but the payoff was big: multi-night winners received a professional booking at the theater. As such, the Apollo played a prominent role in launching promising acts; African-American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald got her start bywinning an amateur night at the Apollo.
To finish a performance at the Apollo, the entertainer had to please the crowd. Whenever song-and-dance contestants began to bomb, the audience booed and the performer was shuttered away. The first time Sims took the stage with his tap shoes on, he danced facing the band and watching the instrumentalists instead of facing the crowd, and he was booed off the stage. Sims was rejected by amateur-night audiences several more times before winning the competition. Once he won, he was unbeatable. Sims's win streak at the Apollo lasted 25 shows, prompting the theatre's management to change the rules and limit each contestant to four wins.
By the 1950s, Sims had become the regular “executioner” at the Apollo, tasked with running the flailing acts off the stage. He wore wacky costumes and sometimes pulled entertainers out of the spotlight using a shepherd's crook—anything to get a laugh. Sims held this stagemanager position for several decades, in addition to dancing on street corners and holding bookings on the vaudeville circuit due to the popularity of his sand dance. He also worked other jobs to keep up with his bills, including stints as a carpenter, a mechanic, and a café manager.
Sims also trained boxers, helping Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali improve their footwork in the ring. He also mentored other dancers, among them Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen. Although he was popular enough to earn dance gigs in Las Vegas and Canada, he never became a nationally known headline dancer. However, in 1969, his mentor, Green, helped organize Tap Happening, an off-Broadway production featuring an A-list cast of dancers that included Sims. The show ran several years and included Sims performing his famous sand dance.
During the 1940s, when jazz music was all the rage and Fred Astaire was a Hollywood film star, tap dancers had plenty of work, often accompanying live musicians on stage. As a dancer, Sims toured with big-band greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, tap fell out of favor as rock 'n' roll exploded, leaving diminished opportunities for live dancers to find work. Sims fought to stay relevant and in 1969, he formed the Hoofers, a six-man ensemble formed to showcase the art of tap. Members included Sims and Green along with Lon Chaney, Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, Raymond Kaalund, and Bernard Manners.
A typical Hoofers performance featured a solo from each tapper during which they showcased their unique skills, and these solos were followed by an ad-libbed “challenge” dance-off, where the dancers competed against one another to see who could get the biggest rise out of the crowd. The Hoofers employed a live band and their shows frequently featured the music of Duke Ellington. The Hoofers performed at off-Broadway venues and toured the United States and Europe, even appearing at the International Festival of Dance in Venice, Italy. They also performed on television and made an appearance on The Tonight Show.
Sims's persistence in keeping tap in the spotlight helped spur a wave of nostalgia and sparked a tap revival during the 1970s. In 1972, he appeared in Best of the Hoofers, an act at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1979, Sims joined Green and Bunny Briggs as a co-star in Nierenberg's documentary No Maps on My Taps, which culminated in a classic challenge dance-off. He gave the director open access to his life, so much so that the film became much more than a simple record of tap history. “Sandman was trying to keep tap alive, and he saw me as a vehicle,” Nierenberg later told Brian Seibert in the New York Times. When No Maps on My Taps hit the festival circuit, the three dancers traveled with it.
The year 1980 found Sims tapping at the Newport Jazz Festival, entertaining 2,600 festival-goers at New York City's Lincoln Center. Four years later, he was awarded a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He used the fellowship funds to teach tap dance to children in Harlem, hosting clinics in parking lots. In 1988, the U.S. Department of State selected Sims to represent the United States as a cultural ambassador, visiting 50 countries in 11 months to introduce the world to tap. A year later, he appeared alongside Sammy Davis, Jr., Hines (his former student), and Savion Glover in the full-length feature film Tap. This popular dance drama brought Sims to a wider audience and led to his appearance in Harlem Nights, a film starring Eddie Murphy. From 1987 to 2000, despite his increased celebrity, Sims continued his role as executioner on the musical variety show It's Showtime at the Apollo, which was taped before a live audience at the theater.
In his later years, Sims suffered from Alzheimer's, and he died in New York City on May 20, 2003, leaving behind his wife, Solange, whom he had married in 1966, as well as their son, Howard Sims, Jr. The dancer had been married previously, and he also left behind two daughters.
Sims entered the cultural spotlight again in 2017 when Milestone Films released a newly remastered version of No Maps on My Taps, as well as re-releasing Nierenberg's 1985 follow-up, About Tap, which featured Hines. The films had limited theater distribution and were shown together, offering newcomers a glimpse of Sims's unique style of dance as well as a peek into tap dancing's long-lost history.
Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1989, Mary Campbell, “Tapping into a Trend.”
Dance Magazine, December 2003, Jane Goldberg, “Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims.”
New York Amsterdam News, May 22–28, 2003, Herb Boyd, “Taps for the Legendary Sandman Sims,” p. 35; September 29–October 5, 2016, Mika Basson, “Sandman Sims: A Tribute to His Legacy,” p. 22.
New York Times, May 30, 2003, Douglas Martin, “Sandman Sims, 86, Tap Dancer and Fixture at the Apollo.”
Syracuse Herald American (Syracuse, NY), September 25, 1977; October 2, 1977.
New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/arts/dance/tap-dance-and-the-hard-work-of-making-it-all-lookeasy.html (July 6, 2017), Brian Seibert, “Tap Dance, and the Hard Work of Making It All Look Easy.”
No Maps on My Taps (documentary film), 1979. □