Howard “Sandman” Sims, legendary “hoofer” (as he called himself), “executioner” and stage manager at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, died May 20 in the Bronx. He was around 86, though he always called his age “a matter of opinion”.
He earned his nickname for the way he’d sprinkle sand onstage before launching into a dance, using feet and sand to create a wide range of sounds, from brushing to grinding. His students included Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen as well as fighters Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
For decades, he was the “executioner” for amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He chased unpopular acts off the stage — but afterward would tell them how he was chased offstage in every one of his first 10 amateur nights, only to go on and win a record 25 straight.
Ft. Smith, Ark., native grew up in Los Angeles, started tap dancing at age 3 but wanted to box, and became a dancer only when he broke his hand twice in the ring. In 1947 he traveled to Gotham from Latin America (where he did some dancing) and took up the dance style of Harlem’s Hoofers Club, which danced using the whole foot rather than the heel-and-toe technique of typical tap. He used sand to recreate the sounds he’d made as a fighter.
A vaudeville regular and performer at the Apollo for 17 years, he nonetheless had to support himself with odd jobs. He started as the Apollo’s “executioner” in the mid-1950s and continued in that duty off and on for more than three decades. He was also the Apollo’s longtime stage manager.
He was the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, and used the $5,000 to teach dancing to children in a Harlem parking lot. Two years later, he appeared in poet Sandra Hochman’s stage play “The Sand Dancer,” inspired by his life and career. Sims was also widely seen in the pic “Tap” and the PBS spec “Tap Dance in America.” He toured for the U.S. State Dept. in the 1980s, traveling to 53 countries.
He is survived by his wife, Solange; two daughters; a son; nine grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.