Eddie Brown

Tap dancer Eddie Brown, who won fame as a master of rhythm tap improvisation and schooled another generation of dancers, died Monday at 74 after a long battle with cancer.

Brown, whodied in a convalescent home, mesmerized audiences with his improvisation; when the band played, he would spontaneously weave intricate, rhythmically diverse dance step combinations.

“He was one of the greatest exponents of rhythm tap,” said Rusty E. Frank, a tap historian who compiled an oral history of tap dancing. Frank, who compared rhythm tap to jazz music, said, “He went far beyond what most tap dancers even tried to grasp.”

Brown was born in Omaha, one of 14 children in a family that included musicians, singers and dancers. He learned tap on street corners and from an uncle who would rap Brown’s ankles with a stick if he got steps wrong.

Legend has it that famed tapper Bill (Bojangles) Robinson discovered the 16 -year-old Brown while touring Omaha. Brown’s parents objected but he ran away and eventually toured China with Robinson. In the 1930s he became a solo performer, primarily in San Francisco.

When the market for tap dancers dried up, Brown endured lean times by teaching himself to play piano.

He found fame again in the 1970s as lead tap dancer in “Evolution of the Blues,” a variety show featuring noted black entertainers. His performance inspired dancers to seek him out for lessons, and from that time, Brown’s class became a required stop for hundreds of students.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1982, where he continued teaching. He was also the lead attraction at performance tours and dance conventions around the world.

He received two choreographer fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a star on San Francisco’s Walk of Fame.

A memorial service is pending.

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