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Fall 2008

Jimmy Slyde (1927–2008)

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Brian Seibert

Except for Peg Leg Bates and Sandman Sims, the great tap dancer with the most illustrative name was Jimmy Slyde. Printed on a program or spoken by an announcer, the name told audiences what to expect: a man named Jimmy, not James or Jim, was going to slide around the stage, and as the unorthodox spelling hinted, he was going to do it without losing his cool. He was born James Titus Godbolt in 1927, but it was as Jimmy Slyde that he began a professional career that lasted from the mid-Forties up until his death this past May, and it is as Jimmy Slyde that he will be remembered.

At the beginning, both the name and the maneuver it labeled were a kind of gimmick, something to set him apart from the hundreds of tap dancers still flooding show business. In another way, Slyde was already unlike most of the other black hoofers of his generation and older. Their motto was "Never took a lesson in my life"; he learned his craft in a dancing school. It wasn't just any dancing school. Located across the street from the New England Conservatory of Music, where young Jimmy took violin lessons, Stanley Brown's school was a hub of the black entertainment world. The greatest dancers of the age—Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, and others—came by to visit, observe, teach a little, inspire. The students were required to practice tap fundamentals and take ballet, and the recitals were like professional shows, with agents in the audience. One of the regular instructors, "Schoolboy" Eddie Ford, was a specialist in slides, and he put together an act for Slyde and another student, Jimmy "Sir Slyde" Mitchell. As the Slyde Brothers, the two teenagers did flips and splits in the manner of the Nicholas Brothers, but slides were their trademark.

The act was short-lived, splitting up when Mitchell was drafted. After two years at Shaw University, Slyde faced a larger problem. The world that he had been trained to enter was fast disappearing. He got on a burlesque circuit and tried Chicago and San Francisco, where the nightclub scene was still thriving. In the late Fifties, he moved to Los Angeles in hopes of breaking into the movies, only to discover that Hollywood no longer had a need for tap dancers. He teamed up with two white dancers, Ray Malone and Jack Ackerman, but club owners weren't ready for an interracial act. It was a dispiriting time to be a tap dancer, bursting with a talent that had gone out of fashion. Most of the men who used to come by Stanley Brown's had died or had taken up day jobs. Some, like Slyde's hero, Teddy Hale, succumbed to drugs. Others moved abroad.

The latter option began to appeal to Slyde in 1966, when he was invited to dance at the Berlin Jazz Festival. The enthusiastic response he and his fellow hoofers received sparked hopes of a new path, but jazz festivals turned out not to be very open to tap dancers. In 1969, he joined some of the best tap dancers living for an odd event, held on Monday nights in New York, called the Tap Happening. It became a surprise hit and earned an enormous amount of press, about how tap dancing was a great art and where had these men been hiding. Some noticed that in the show's tap challenge, Slyde always went last, trusted with the responsibility of topping everyone else. After the show closed, though, there was still no steady work. Slyde appeared in a French documentary called L'Aventure du Jazz, and while doing a promotional tour there, he got offers to stay. In France, there was plenty of work, and perhaps more important, audiences that made him feel special, appreciated. He stayed.

By the time he returned to Boston in the late Seventies, the situation stateside had changed. A tap revival was underway, and Slyde, silver-haired, slipped easily into the role of elder. In that guise, he made brief cameos in films like The Cotton Club (1984) and Tap (1989) and was given a featured spot in the backward-gazing revue Black and Blue, first in Paris, then on Broadway. In the early Nineties, he started a weekly jam session at a New York restaurant called La Cave, and by example he taught a new generation of dancers how to improvise with a band. The regulars, from around the world, included a young Savion Glover. Tap dance now had its own festivals and concerts, and when Slyde took to the stage, it was as the King of Cool. His easy mastery inevitably made just about everyone else on the program seem spastic.

During these performances, he would sometimes grab his back and pretend to be broken down, but this was a joke. People laughed, because almost until the end of his life, there was no diminishment in his dancing. And, as the earliest extant footage reveals (a TV variety show filmed in 1959), his was a style that, though it refined and deepened, barely changed over time. Improvisation, he thought, was too exalted a word for what he did: deploying his signature steps in response to the musical moment, then branching off into fresh creations. Much more than a gimmick, his slides were an entire expressive idiom. They went in all directions, now as if he were being pushed, now as if he were being pulled, his slender frame tilting in opposition. The slides took on many parts of speech, from little connective scoots to long, stage-traversing slalom runs. Slides allowed him to tease the beat, delaying then catching up. They were silences, visually exciting rests, but they also functioned as long notes, as Slyde's physical dynamics, speeding and slowing, suggested crescendos and diminuendos. As he always stressed in interviews, slides couldn't be metered out exactly; there was always an element of danger and chance, and that kept both him and his public alert. He spoke of slides as a hush, a breath, and audiences responded with their own array of sounds: laughter, gasps, sighs of wonder, wild applause.

Along with whirling-top spins and shifts of direction that pressed into the floor at one point and spurted out at another, the slides were fully integrated into Slyde's musical phrasing. As a dancer who matured during the bebop era, he demonstrated that idiom as simply a way of swinging harder. His lyricism had a kick, and his incredibly smooth physicality was a kind of music in itself. He used his shoulders the way other people used their eyebrows. Where most tap dancers sacrifice movement for sound, or vice versa, Slyde fused the two into a single impulse. In this respect, he was unsurpassed. He once told an interviewer that he was "strictly sound-oriented," and anyone in the tap-is-just-music camp could listen to his dancing with pleasure (he recorded one album, in France). And yet people who expect tap dancing to look like something watched Slyde with no disappointment and with a sense of relief.

Offstage, he was a private man, close to his parents until their deaths, ever the gentleman but a little slippery, reclusive, difficult to know. (The missing fingers on his right hand added to the mystery.) He was fond of word play and tended to speak metaphorically, often in little tap koans that could sound like platitudes but would work in the minds of his pupils like slow-release pills, gradually gaining resonance, or time bombs, long opaque then making sense in a flash. Lessons about the dance resonated as lessons about life: "You've got to fall," he'd say, "and you've got to learn how to get up, gracefully. Like you never fell. Everybody slides sometime."

Habitually humble, Slyde emphasized the importance of the dance over the individual, always expressing his gratitude to be part of a lineage, always insisting that he didn't invent anything, though he did. His influence was, and will continue to be, pervasive and international. The official honors came tardy but not too late: an NEA fellowship, a Guggenheim, a Dance Magazine Award, an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University. (The last one made him weep.) Handed a microphone, he would go into what he called "remembering," reciting a litany of the names of dancers who had passed on, and without fail, he would speak of joy. "They haven't left us," he liked to say. "They left something for us." Say the same of him now.

Brian Seibert, who lives in Brooklyn, is at work on a book about tap dancing.

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