He's taut and wiry, with no excess flesh on his small frame. The connection between his head and feet is total, nurtured by decades of reinforcement, and Eddie Brown's head lives for what his feet can do.
A smiling man with innate kindliness, Brown is now in his 70s. He's among the last of the old-time hoofers; and students at the University of Utah were clearly in awe of him, as he taught them one routine after another of rhythm tap - a Brown speciality that tends to transform neatly turned feet into groping, searching appendages."That ain't nothin'," he said, breaking a seemingly complex phrase down to its simple components.
"Get the sound of it in your ear - in your EAR!" he shouted above the clattering taps. "They can hear you, sittin' out there, but they don't know where it's coming from."
"Now to give the step a little poise and grace . . . ," he smiled, pointing his toe at the end of a phrase. "OK, you're on your own!" and he stepped aside to watch them dance the whole routine from memory.
"These kids are the greatest," he said, pausing to chat as the class broke up. "They start two or three levels above most that I teach."
"But our tap program here may be cut after next year," said Janet Gray, who teaches jazz and tap at the U. "Which is so sad, because we are seeing an improvement in our ballet and jazz classes, as a result of tap's strong emphasis on rhythm."
Gray has been going to Los Angeles every Christmas for four years to study with Eddie Brown and other times when she can fit it in her schedule. His challenging discipline spoke a strange language to her when she began.
"I remember after my first lesson, Eddie looked at me and said, `Child, can you walk?' " she laughed. "He's very hard on me, and he remembers everything. He'll say, `You ought to remember that, I taught you that in 1986!'
"He's told me, `I'm passing my knowledge on to you.' And then one day he said, `I'm coming to Salt Lake City.' Luckily, we found some money from the Associated Students to bring him."
Brown has been tapping since he was 5 years old, and "as long as the Master upstairs lets me, I'll go on tapping," he declared.
Born in Omaha, Neb., he was raised in a strict Christian family of 11 children and went to a Catholic parochial school.
At the same time he studied with his Uncle Sam Brown, following him around his lesson circuit in Omaha, Lincoln and Sioux City, Iowa. Brown ran away from home to join Bill (Bojangles) Robinson's group (1932-37) in New York and toured the Orpheum Theater circuit. He went west to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1936 and even danced in Shanghai, China.
Robinson's style was the old-time "flash dance" buck-and-wing. But while in New York City, Brown became obsessed with rhythm tap, developed by Johnny Bubbles in the '20s, and he woodshedded on his own until he could perform in the new style. "I went on the street and learned most of it," he said.
He fondly ticked off the names of old-time tappers who inspired him or with whom he worked - Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Honi Coles, Chuck Green, Arthur Duncan (all black except Condos).
Brown tried to verbalize what happens in rhythm tap. "The steps are the same as flash tap, but you cut the music's tempo in half, then tap double-time to the slower beat, producing a continuous stream of rapid-fire taps," he said. "And the dropped heel is important; with that, you can add four more moves to a measure."
Gray added further explanation. "It's more intricate, you move the foot laterally rather than just kicking it back and forth. The foot must be relaxed, and the muscles just fall into place. In buck-and-wing you jump up and down, where in rhythm tap you feel like the floor is part of the dance, you glide across instead of bouncing off of it."
Brown settled in San Francisco in 1939, dancing in clubs that have long since gone by the boards. He served in the Army's Special Services during World War II, providing entertainment to other servicemen.
After the war the popularity of tap declined, as ballet, jazz and modern became the dances of preference in musical comedy. "Tap in show business went kaput in the mid-'50s," said Brown, "but I always knew it would come back."
So he taught on through the decline, often with dozens of students. A good musician, he also worked as a drummer or piano player in bands at night. Since he never married, his needs were simple; even so, the pickings were slim.
When interest in tap revived during the '70s, Eddie Brown resurfaced in San Francisco, where he was recognized as one of the last old-time virtuosos. While tap slept, Brown and his sort had become legendary.
He was soon in demand for Bay Area master classes and was a featured soloist in "The Evolution of the Blues," put together by jazz singer Jon Hendricks, which ran in San Francisco for four years. In 1981 he toured Nigeria and Kenya with Wajumbe, a San Francisco-based African troupe. In 1982 he moved to Hollywood.
There he leads a simple lifestyle. He jumps up at about 6 a.m. and has some coffee and a doughnut, or a sweet roll ("He loves sugar," said Gray). He watches the news on TV, then goes to his studio in the historic old Embassy Theater in Hollywood, to teach and take calls.
"Lots of my kids call," he said. "I usually stop teaching by 6 o'clock, but sometimes later. If someone calls me at 10 p.m, I'll say come on over, and we'll work as late as midnight." A devout Catholic, Brown never works on Sunday and always goes to early mass.
Nowadays, Brown teaches mostly private lessons. Among his students he counts Dick Van Dyke (when younger) and Jeff Goldblum, who played the fly in the movie of the same name; also Lynn Daly and Camden Mitchell, who run the Jazz Tap Ensemble and often ask Brown to do guest spots.
"Tap is coming back everywhere, people are giving those old-style tap-dancing shows," he asserted. "Students come to me from all over the country and from abroad, and I get lots of calls from studios needing tap dancers."