Howard "Sandman" Sims was a distinctive and influential tap dancer who gained his nickname from dancing on the sand he sprinkled on a tap board. Sandman Sims was famed for the range of percussive sounds his sand-dancing could produce - from the sweetest brushing to the most abrasive grinding.
Although he had tap-danced since 3, he discovered his style accidentally while training to be a boxer and shuffling his feet in a rosin box. The result earned him widespread acclaim and sustained him during the decline of tap in the 1950s and '60s.
"They called the board my Stradivarius," Sandman liked to say." I could use any kind of music - or I could do it without any music at all."
He was born Jan. 24, 1918 in Fort Smith, Ark., but would grow up in Los Angeles. One of 10 children, he began dancing with his brothers on street corners. Tap dancing was the street dance, the break dancing of his time. He would walk around with his tap shoes laced over his shoulder, Because the kids helped make a living for the family in his day! "People would throw down their shoes in front of you and said, "Challenge"! This was later dramatized in the movie Tap and an episode of The Cosby Show called Mr. Sandman..
After breaking his hand twice, he gave up boxing and danced in Latin America before Archie Moore, the prize fighter, drove him to New York City in 1947 after World War II. There Sandman joined " The Hoofers ." They characterized the hoofing style of dance. Unlike the heel-and-toe tap performed by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, a hoofer's steps use the whole foot.
Dance historian Sally Sommer has described Sandman's tap style as strong and vigorous: "body hunkered over, knees bent, feet digging into the floor - and his sand dance was characterized by clear, quick rhythms and subtle nuances."
People would say they liked the effect of shuffling in a rosin box, so he glued sand to a board, but wore out his shoes. Then he tried gluing sand to his shoes, but wore out the board. Finally loose on the sand board was the solution.
He worked at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem for the next 17 years, in the stage left lower balcony he played side kick to famed Executioner of that era Puerto Rico around the mid 1950s, shortly after and for the 30+ years, he acted in the part of "the executioner" which would soon later stand out of the role and just be recognized as "Sandman" who escorted unpopular or downright awful performers off the stage on amateur nights by dressing in hilarious outfits and chase the unsuccessful entertainers in mid-song, firing a blank pistol at them or taunting a chair, tambourine or broken plastic bat!.
He said in a 1987 New York Times interview, "performers wait outside to beat me up." He told disconsolate losers about how he himself had to return 10 times before being allowed to finish his act. But then he danced up storm upon storm and won 25 straight contests, a record that led to the four-win limit now in effect.
He also worked as the Apollo's stage manager and supported himself as a carpenter, mechanic and tap teacher. His students included such stellar dancers and stars such as Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, Emmanuel Lewis, Savion Glover even Bill Bojangles Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr were fascinated by his signature sand dance.Star boxers, such as Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson came to him to improve their footwork.
Sandman Sims owned a café on 125th Street in Harlem and was a regular in the vaudeville scene. He also held his own Amateur Hour at the Lenox Lanes bowling alley on West 146th street in Harlem.
In 1984, Mr. Howard "Sandman" Sims won a National Heritage Fellowship award, from The National Endowment for the Arts for his craft. "I thought I was making noise all these years," he said at the time. "Now they're calling it culture."
In 1986, he appeared in "The Sand Dancer," a play by poet Sandra Hochman inspired by his life and career. "I wanted my feet to sound like shooting stars," the Sandman character says. Sandman Sims, who danced in that production, was good with words himself. "I'm in show business not for a season, but a reason!"
He narrated and appeared in the documentary "No Maps On My Taps"- 1979, he was also widely seen in the film "Tap", Harlem Nights, The Cotton Club, A Gathering Of Old Men and the PBS special "Tap Dance In America", starring Hines and the Hoofers. He also toured widely in the 1980s, dancing in 53 countries as an embassador for the U.S. State Department.
Sandman was a "virtuoso among virtuosos," said dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, "in a class by himself."
The Howard Sandman Sims Corp. is continuing the legacy of Sandman through "The Sandman Sims Feet First Foundation," which is a non-for profit agency that is implementing free dance programs in various school systems. The Sand Dancer Production Company will continue with The Sandman's legacy in tap on film, television, stage.
Sandman Sims' made the transition on May 20, 2003 at the age of 86, although he long maintained that his age was "a matter of opinion." He is survived by his wife, Solange; his daughter Diane Sims Jones; his son Howard Sims Jr, 5 grandchildren, Shannon, Daniel, Shardonnai, Christopher, Tatianna, Eugenia Sims (daughter in-law) Troy Jones (son in-law), Joe Sims (brother) and Janie B Scaggs (sister).