Louis Hawkins, dean of city's tap dancers, dies

May 20, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The Hawk has "walked the dog" for the last time.

His "shim sham" will shake no more. And he's tapped his last sentence on "the typewriter."

Baltimore's Louis Hawkins is dead at 78.

The unrivaled dean of the city's small tap dancing community, "The Hawk" started hoofing in front of a Howard Street shoe store when he was 12 and ended up dancing for change in Fells Point bars.

In between, the longtime resident of South Carey Street danced with the Count Basie Orchestra, won a string of amateur night contests at the fabled Apollo Theater in New York, and worked with comedians Redd Foxx and Slappy White. Last year, he participated in an all-star tap revue in New York City.

"I'll dance as long as my legs hold out," said Mr. Hawkins in a 1987 interview.

His heart gave out first, taking him in a massive attack Wednesday afternoon at University Hospital, where he was operated on after a fall.

"Hawk was from that old school that could break down the wall between the performer and the audience," said Michael "Toes" Tiranoff, who performed with Mr. Hawkins in Baltimore for about 15 years. "He had that 'leg-o-mania' ability to throw his legs up in the air and do a twist in the middle of his routine -- it was amazing."

Mr. Tiranoff, 43, said that his mentor in this American folk art would tell stories of tap dancing on roller skates, in a chair, on his back and against walls.

"He was a comedy dancer, with this great ability to mime -- he could almost make it look like he was driving a car while he danced in a chair," he said. "He could stand on the chair and tap, fall down into the seat still tapping, bring the chair down on its back, lay down in it and keep tapping without missing a beat. As a showman, he was anyone's equal." Louis Hawkins, who was raised on Gilmor Street, was the youngest of six children born to a pair of amateur dancers named Louis and Laura Hawkins. The boy learned tap from his father and went on to perform with a 10-piece family band called the Hawk Melody Boys.

"Years ago, they called it buck dancing, now they call it tap," said Marie Brown, 86, his only surviving sibling. "When my mother died she told me to take care of Louis, he was the baby, and me and him lived together all the time. It really hurts. He's gone now."

In the '30s and '40s, Mr. Hawkins performed regularly at nightclubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 1950s, he was the doorman at Club Les Gals on Mount Royal Avenue, tapping on stage when the strippers took breaks. As he grew older, the only thing he enjoyed more than dancing was the race track, and he could be seen regularly at Pimlico.

"I bet Daddy taught about 20 young guys here in Baltimore to hoof and tap," said Mr. Hawkins' daughter, Rhonda Rogers.

"Hawk probably exposed more people to tap than anyone in Baltimore -- hundreds of people saw him every night," said Megan Hamilton, a bartender at the Cat's Eye Pub and the organizer of a vaudeville troupe that included Mr. Hawkins.

"He hit all the bars and he had the bus schedules memorized," he added. "From Club Stabiles in Highlandtown to what was left of Pennsylvania Avenue, you could find Hawk dancing."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, 1546 N. Fremont Ave., Baltimore.

Memorial donations may be made to the Music Department of Morgan State University, 4601 Hillen Road, Baltimore 21239.

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