The New York Times The New York Times Obituaries May 30, 2003



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Sandman Sims tap dancing on sand in the late 1980's.

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Sandman Sims, 86, Tap Dancer and Fixture at the Apollo, Dies


Sandman Sims, the celebrated tap dancer and Apollo Theater legend, died on May 20 in the Bronx. He was 86, although he long maintained that his age was "a matter of opinion."

For decades he was "executioner" at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, chasing unpopular acts off the stage on amateur nights, sometimes with a toy gun. 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.

The man born Howard Sims became famous and won his stage name for dancing on sprinkled sand, his deft feet brushing, scraping, rustling, seeming almost to whisper to the floor. His skill was suggested by his accomplished students Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen, as well as by the boxers to whom Sandman taught footwork, including Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

In a review in The New York Times, the dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called him a "virtuoso among virtuosos in a class by himself."

When he won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, Mr. Sims was more modest.

"I thought I was making noise all these years," he said. "Now they're calling it culture."

He used the $5,000 fellowship to teach dancing to children in a Harlem parking lot.

"I was born dancing," Mr. Sims said in a 1977 interview with The Times. That happened in Fort Smith, Ark., on Jan. 24, 1917. He grew up in Los Angeles.

Tap dancing was the street dance, the break dancing of his time. He would walk around with his tap shoes in his back pocket.

"People would throw down their shoes in front of you and say, `Challenge!' " he said in an interview with Newsday in 1989. He decided to pursue dancing as a career when he realized that he could not make it as a boxer.

In 1947 his friend Archie Moore, the prizefighter, drove him to New York. There Mr. Sims fell in with hoofers, practitioners of a dance style that characterized the Hoofers Club in Harlem. Unlike the heel-and-toe tap performed by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, a hoofer's steps use the whole foot.

Dancing came from his boxing days when he would do "some fancy steps" in the rosin box before entering the ring, he told The Los Angeles Times in 1986. People liked the effect, so he tried dancing on sandpaper, but wore out his shoes. He tried gluing sandpaper to his shoes, but wore out the mat. Loose sand in a box was the solution.

He danced at the Apollo for 17 years, but could not support himself that way. He owned a cafe, taught tap and worked as a carpenter and mechanic, among other things. He was a regular on the vaudeville circuit.

Mr. Sims became the Apollo's executioner in the mid-1950's and continued off and on for more than three decades. He was also stage manager of the theater.

He is survived by his wife, Solange; his daughters Mercedes White and Diane Jones; his son, Howard Jr.; 9 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

In 1986 the poet Sandra Hochman wrote a play in verse and dance about Mr. Sims called "The Sand Dancer." Ms. Hochman's language is whimsical: "I wanted my feet to sound like shooting stars," the Sandman character says.

Mr. Sims, who danced in that production, was good with words himself.

"I'm in show business not for a season, but a reason," he said in the Times interview in 1977. "The wine, women and song are gone. I want to just dance my way away at the end."

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