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Tap legend Jimmy Slyde dies at 80

Banner Staff | 5/28/2008, 5:09 a.m.
James T. Godbolt, known to dance audiences the world over as the tap dancer Dr. Jimmy Slyde, passed away May 16 at his home in Hanson, Mass. Davis Funeral Home

He was born James T. Godbolt, but he was known around the world as the electric Dr. Jimmy Slyde — a preternaturally gifted dancer whose musicality and elegance thrilled audiences from Japan to Europe, South America and elsewhere, and whose warmth, generosity and wisdom inspired generations of dancers over a career spanning six decades.

No less an authority than the late Gregory Hines placed Slyde not only in the contemporary dance pantheon, but atop it.

“I can’t decide if it’s Jimmy Slyde, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly — or Jimmy Slyde, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire,” Hines once said, according to a Nov. 2005 article in Dance magazine.

Slyde passed away peacefully May 16 at his home in Hanson, Mass. He was 80.

Born in Atlanta on Oct. 2, 1927, Slyde was raised in Boston. Always attracted to music and performance, he began playing the violin at 10. He started tap dancing two years later, studying at Stanley Brown’s dance studio, where he met Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and other great dancers of the era.

By the early 1940s he was dancing professionally, eventually teaming up with Jimmy “Sir Slyde” Mitchell to form “The Slyde Brothers.” He would go on to dance with big bands fronted by jazz legends Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and appearing at dance and jazz festivals around the world.

Slyde appeared in several motion pictures, including “Tap,” “The Cotton Club,” “About Tap,” “A Star is Born” and “Round Midnight.” In 1989, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway musical “Black and Blue,” originally produced in Paris.

The good doctor’s credits also include appearances in 1000 Years of Jazz with the Original Hoofers, and performances at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center for the Arts and even the White House, where he danced for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Slyde also appeared regularly in tap shows at New York City’s La Cave and La Place, and he taught dance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass., as well as in Brazil, Switzerland and France.

Slyde received a number of honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 1999, a 2003 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate of performing arts from Oklahoma City University in 2002.

Through it all, he remained humble.

“Please don’t call me a ‘master,’” he’d say, according to the 2005 magazine piece. “I’m just a nudge.”

A few of the dancers mentored and “nudged” by Dr. Slyde: the late Hines, Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Andrew J. Nemr, Sarah Petronio, Van Porter, Roxane Butterfly and Rocky Mendes.

He is survived by a son, Darryl Gentry, and by the world of dance to which he contributed so richly.