Beautiful New York

A Celebration of the City

The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #81

Sandman Sims (1917 – 2003)

81 Sandman Sims

In his youth, Howard “Sandman” Sims had hoped to be a boxer. But after breaking his hand twice he turned to tap dancing, earning his nickname from the use of sand to add to the distinctive sound of his steps. Competing in the legendary Amateur Night competitions at The Apollo Theater, he won a staggering 25 times and provoked the theater into placing a cap on the number of amateur nights you can win (it is now four). He went on to become resident tap dancer at the Apollo and spent five decades steadily employed as “the Executioner” who uses the hook on those whom the audience has booed off the stage. Never losing his interest in boxing, Sims went on to teach Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali the footwork for which they would become famous in the ring. After retiring from the sport, Robinson would often come back and perform with Sims, either in Harlem or on tour. Even in his Apollo glory days, Sims never forgot where he came from, often engaging in “challenge dancing” with street-corner hoofers of the kind he had once been. That tradition has moved from tap to break dancing, but continues to this day.

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