One Step Ahead

Howard Blume is a staff writer for LA Weekly and a tapper.

It starts with a stomp-brush step, stomp-brush step, stomp-brush ball change, stomp-brush step. Then comes the Crossover, the Tack Annie and the Half Break -- all easy maneuvers, but also irresistibly showy.

The Shim Sham Shimmy is the national anthem of tap dancing, regularly performed at the end of tap shows, sometimes with audience members invited onstage to join in. And, in Southern California audiences, until he died early this month at the age of 97, you could often find Leonard Reed, the dancer credited with putting these four combinations of steps together as a signature, one-chorus show-ender.

There were a handful of others who claimed authorship of the Shim Sham, but Reed outlived them by decades, so no one quibbles. Many dancers have tinkered with the steps, but Reed's persistent annoyance was that people who were trying to do the thing right would frequently mistime the transition from the first combination to the second -- this despite an official training video Reed authorized.

That he didn't live to be 100 surprised everyone: Reed seemed so able to out-charm and outwit any challenge.

As a dancer, starting in 1922, Reed, who was light-skinned enough to pass as white, did double duty on the black and white performing circuits. But it was a dangerous business. Getting caught, especially in certain locales in the South, could have resulted in a lynching.

As a teenager, Reed once won an all-white dance contest by doing the Charleston, the only dance he knew at the time. The theater owner found him out when two black usherettes spilled Reed's secret. The proprietor planned to kick Reed out and deny him his prize money. Instead, Reed grabbed the cash and ran. The theater owner yelled: "Get him!" When people started after him, Reed pulled up his collar and took up the cry, continuing to run with the crowd until he could slip away.

The black vaudeville circuit, the Theater Owners Booking Assn., or TOBA, lived up to its nickname: "Tough on Black Artists." Performers like Reed scratched a living from town to town, all for less money and fame than their white counterparts.

Reed was actually half white, his half-black, half-Choctaw Cherokee Indian mother having been raped by a white man. But in that era -- and long after -- if a man was part black, he was all black.

Like much else in the United States, tap dancing offered a separate and unequal platform for white and black artists. Fred Astaire was justly celebrated but no more talented than contemporary John Bubbles, an originator of the complex, jazzy, low-to-the-floor rhythm tap. Astaire received seminal training from a teacher steeped in the technique and tricks of black tappers.

As for Reed, by 1929 he'd worked his way to Harlem, when it was home to the nation's premier art scene. He won a featured role in an all-black musical revue called "Deep Harlem," which moved to Broadway. The show traced black song and dance from its roots in Africa to modern America. White reviewers, however, had expected lighter fare, studded with stereotypes.

As historians Marshall and Jean Stearns noted in their book "Jazz Dance," "In 'Deep Harlem' they were swimming against the stream, for whites had a low opinion of African culture, and most Negroes had been taught to feel ashamed of it. The critics arrived expecting watermelons on the ol' plantation and were puzzled." The Sun newspaper called the show "too self-conscious ... too refined ... weighted down with a Message or whatever it was."

Savion Glover scored a 1995 hit with something of the same idea in "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." But Reed disliked Glover's in-your-face hip-hop fusion because it characterized the Nicholas Brothers -- Fayard and Harold -- and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as sellouts for their early crossover successes. Robinson couldn't get into mainstream films until he partnered with a white child, Shirley Temple, whom he also coached.

"I don't understand this stuff about being a sellout," Reed told me in 1998, when "Noise/Funk" opened in L.A. "Bill Robinson ... did what he had to do to make a living. Eventually he got to show the world how great he was."

"Noise/Funk," he added, seemed "to put down my era of clever, classic tap dancing." Glover's show was too much "stomping and screaming and drum-beating," he said. "Tap dancing is not supposed to be noisy."

In 1933, Reed stopped dancing and instead began producing shows that often featured Robinson or the Nicholas Brothers in places such as New York's Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club (for a white-only audience). He also produced many shows in Los Angeles.

"Robinson was awesome," remembered Reed. "A tap dancer who performed, a pure salesman. And the cleanest dancer I've ever known. He had more imitators than anybody."

As for the Nicholas Brothers, "the biggest hand they got is when they did the flips and splits," Reed said. "They were good tappers, but they found that the acrobatics stopped shows, and that's what show business is all about. No one in that era or this era is comparable to them."

Reed mentored many talents, including singer Dinah Washington. He wrote songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. He produced music by Marvin Gaye. He managed boxer Joe Louis' show-business career after Louis introduced himself to learn the name of Reed's tailor. A living history book and the sharpest person in the room, Reed was the last word, a go-to person for any journalist writing a tap-related article.

Reed settled for good in West Covina, keeping a small studio/office near Hollywood and Vine until after he turned 95.

He became a fixture at local tap events, treated with near reverence. He'd always dance a little, and also get laughs when he thrust his arms back in a comic simulation of a Nicholas Brothers back flip. And when called up from the audience to lead a Shim-Sham finale, he'd always intentionally miscount that one pesky transition -- so that he wouldn't confuse a stage full of dancers who'd learned it wrong.

About 10 years ago, he choreographed a second Shim-Sham chorus, and more recently he added a third. Such occasions were like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with an additional tablet of commandments. In his 90s, Reed always was thinking ahead to the next gig, writing music, planning shows, developing proteges.

I last called him in August for comments on the death at 57 of Gregory Hines, who had virtually grown up backstage at Reed's shows, where his drummer father was a frequent performer. He'd been looking forward to catching up with Hines at a dance gathering that weekend, where Reed would be teaching. Reed defined his own health as passable, except for the annoyance of his recently broken foot: "I can't even go out in the backyard and chip anymore. It's my left foot, and in golf that's the foot you brace against, you know."

Recognition for Reed and other black tap greats finally arrived, in part because of pioneering white women tappers, including Brenda Bufalino in New York and Southern California-based Lynn Dally and Linda Sohl-Donnell. They studied with the old men and helped popularize their work by bringing them back to the stage and helping to erase tap's racial divide. It has been the black tradition that fueled tap's modern resurgence, headlined by Hines and Glover.

You can expect to see the Shim Sham at Reed's memorial, scheduled for Saturday, April 24, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the City of Angels Church of Religious Science, 5550 Grosvenor Blvd. in Los Angeles. Be sure to bring your dance shoes.

It's a fitting, reconciling metaphor to see Reed's anthem performed by all races and all ages whenever tappers gather. Even if they do begin Step 2 on count 8, instead of count 1.

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