Leonard Reed

Leonard_Reed

Leonard Reed

(January 7, 1907, – April 5, 2004)

Leonard Reed was an American tap dancer, co-creator with his partner, Willie Bryant, of the famous Shim Sham Shimmy (Goofus) dance routine.

Born in Lightning Creek, Oklahoma, near Nowata, on January 7, 1907, a mix of black, white and Choctaw. His mother died of pneumonia when he was 2, and he never knew his father. He was raised by his great-grandmother until he was 11, when he was placed in a foster home in Kansas City, Missouri.  He was soon running with the wrong crowd, and at the age of 13 was threatened with a four-year stretch in reform school for buying alcohol under-age. However, the headmaster of his high school, Hugh Oliver Cook, knew that Leonard was being habitually assaulted by the guardian of the foster home, and offered to adopt him if he were not jailed.

By 15, Leonard had a weekend job selling popcorn at a theater in Kansas City. The Charleston craze was sweeping the United States, and he learned how to dance it by copying the performers on stage. Soon Reed was good enough to win local Charleston contests and spent the summer of 1922 as the barker for a black “tent show”, or traveling revue. He began to work for the likes of Travis Tucker in his holidays and then, at 18, while in New York visiting his prospective university, Cornell, entered and won a Charleston competition for whites. The victory proved to be his passport to the white theaters as well. He attended Cornell University but after winning another Charleston contest on a bet, he left school to start his dancing career.

He began in entertainment as a specialist Charleston dancer, doing three-minute slots in the shows that toured the black theater circuits of the South and Mid-West. He learned to tap by watching other performers, and while appearing in a revue called Hits and Bits of 1922 was forced to parade his new skills when its star, Travis Tucker, was found to be too drunk to appear. Reed was 15. Soon he was a regular visitor to the Hoofers Club, on 7th Avenue in Harlem, where dancers such as Bill Robinson traded steps and styles with all comers. Reed started working for the Whitman Sisters, who were acknowledged to have the best black revue, and formed a partnership with the similarly light-skinned Willie Bryant: “Reed & Bryant – Brains as well as Feet”.

In about 1930, Reed and Bryant devised a new finale for their eight-minute show, a step of simple heel-and-toe combinations danced to four eight-bar choruses – tunes such as Tuxedo Junction or Ain’t What You Do. He and Bryant originally called it “Goofus”, but it became known as the Shim Sham after a club where they regularly appeared. Its simplicity, and suitability as a line dance, especially with the newly popular swing music, meant that it was quickly picked up and disseminated by clubgoers. It has endured ever since, and has been called the anthem of tap.

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