The familiar lament of African-American musicians, “They’ve taken my blues and gone,” refers to how white musicians freely co-opted black musical styles, getting rich while the originators of this music — thanks to the prejudice of the time — were relegated to black stages and black record labels.
African-American hoofers could tap out a similar lament. Most historians believe that tap dancing, though it is related to clogging, jigging, and other folk dances, has its deepest roots in the rhythms of African drums. Plantation owners feared that drums might empower the slaves to revolt, but when they outlawed drumming, the rhythms managed to survive in the dancing. This dancing style migrated in the 19th century to minstrel shows. Fast forward to when Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, famous for his Shirley movies, was allowed to perform onstage alone. It may seem hard to imagine now, but white theaters had a “two-fer” rule. Whites could be soloists, but blacks had to perform in twos.
Despite these outrageous odds, black dancers honed their craft. Even as white performers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly enjoyed starring roles in Hollywood, blacks danced as porters, redcaps, and street cleaners. Interest in hoofing dwindled in the 1950s, but it enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s, when young tap dancers began to hang out with the old-timers, believing that if they could re-connect with the African American rhythms, they might “take tap into the future,” as one wrote.
A 1979 documentary by George Nierenberg jumpstarted this effort to preserve the hoofers’ heritage. “No Maps On My Taps” will be screened at a free program on Sunday, November 23, at 3 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The program will also include a demonstration of jazz hoofing. Using the premise of a contest theater managers would set up competitions to sell tickets — and the documentary introduces professional tap dancers Howard “Sandman” Sims, Charles (Chuck) Green, and Bunny Briggs. They, and most of the others on their Harlem circuit, are dead, so the film is a priceless legacy.
Howard Sims Jr., the son of “Sandman” Sims (1917-2003), will comment on the film. Sims Jr., now 39, appears in the film as a boy dancing with his father. A Princeton resident, Sims Jr. grew up in Harlem. His Jewish mother was from Algeria. His father, who had learned to tap on the streets of Los Angeles, had dancing gigs and stage manager jobs at Harlem’s Apollo Theater but supplemented his income by doing carpentry.
Sims Jr. graduated from California State, and is a technical operations manager for Time Warner in Manhattan. He and his wife, Eugenia, a former banker who is now a New York Life agent, moved here in 1998 so that their children — Tatiana, Christopher, Shardonnai, and Daniel, ages 11 to 17 — could attend school in a diverse community. Before his father died, says Sims Jr., they did father/son acts for Black History concerts at John Witherspoon School. He is working on a documentary and administers the family’s Feet First Foundation.
Black hoofers may not have earned as much as whites, but they treasured their riffs and rhythms and felt impelled to pass them on to the next generation. Sims notes that his father taught famous tappers like Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, and today’s top star, Savion Glover, but he also taught children on the street. “These guys, with open arms, gave their knowledge, whether speaking at a college or demonstrating on a street corner, they did whatever they could to keep the culture alive and thriving.” He tells how his father, walking to the theater, “had to stop every kid he saw and show them a step and get them to copy a step. He enjoyed that more than performing in front of an audience.”
As “hoofers,” black dancers used the whole foot, not just the heel-and-toe tap employed by Astaire and Kelly, and their choreography was usually improvised. The nickname “Sandman” came from Sims’ novel style — dancing in a tray partly filled with sand, which amplified and added pizzazz to his rhythms. Former New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called Sims “a virtuoso among virtuosos — in a class by himself. To say Mr. Sims dances on sand is like saying Philippe Petit [the French high wire who gained fame from his illegal walk between the two World Trade Center towners in 1974] is a tightrope walker.” Dance critic Sally Sommer described his style as strong and vigorous, “body hunkered over, knees bent, feet digging into the floor. His sand dance was characterized by clear, quick rhythms and subtle nuances.”
‘I may not be the best dancer in the world, or the best dancer in my theater, but I am the best dancer in my sandbox,” Sandman Sims told Manhattan-based writer Sandra Hochman during an interview for the New Yorker magazine. Armed with stories of black dancers who had been discriminated against, Hochman translated his life into a play, with such lines for the lead character as, “I want my feet to sound like shooting stars.” Paul Robeson Jr. did the casting. The play, “The Sand Dancer,” made both a poetic and a political statement, and it won rave reviews.
Gregory Hines, perhaps inspired by the play and the Nierenberg movie, found support to produce another documentary, “Tap.” Says Sims: “Even though my father had had constant work, things did not pop for my dad, career-wise, until Gregory brought him into that film. After that my father had newfound energy, and he started making money — doing the Cosby show, and doing movies like ‘Gathering of Old Men.’”
Hoofers of his father’s generation, he says, “had the wealth in their heart and they wanted to give that. They did it to help their families survive, but they also knew they had something that shouldn’t go away when they pass on.” Yet his father urged him to pursue a business career, and now Sims is quite worried about whether the art form can survive. Almost all of his father’s cohorts have died, and he believes that Savion Glover, who he says owns the legacy, focuses on performing, not evangelizing. “I think he is a beautiful person,” says Sims. “but he is the last of this era. When he’s gone, this craft is gone.”
Whether in race relations or in the arts, says Sims, “We need to do things for each other. No matter what you may think of me, I need to speak to you, and I need to show you that I am not the person you think I am. If we have a craft or a skill, it shouldn’t be about money all the time. We should share that knowledge with each other. That was the beautiful thing about my dad.”
Sims has been able to give his children a good life, and he says that, growing up, he never knew poverty: “Even when we were at our lowest, we always had food. [My father] instilled in me that you protect your family; no matter what bad time you are going through, you don’t let them see that.”
But he did learn about prejudice from his father’s experiences. “People loved him worldwide, but he saw the civil rights struggle. Whether being washed down the street by a fire hose, or having a dog set on him, or having to walk through the back kitchen door. As he told me these stories, he kind of put me there. Anything that I consider a barrier, I consider it minute, compared to what those guys came through.
“But when my father performed, and he saw the astonishment and love in the face of a white person who was amazed at what he did — no matter what horror he had been through — it healed that, by the reception he was getting. In a lot of ways, I think his craft healed him.”
No Maps on My Taps, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Sunday, November 23, 3 to 5 p.m. Screening of 1979 documentary that offers unique insight into improvised jazz tap dancing, otherwise known a hoofing, an indigenous American art form. In addition there will be a demonstration of jazz hoofing. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.