Overlooked No More: Henry Heard, Tap Dancer and Advocate for People with Disabilities

This article is part of Disregardeda series of obituaries about notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

It is October 1958 and tap dancer Henry Heard has taken the stage at the Copa Club in Columbus, Ohio, as part of a tour of the Inactive magazinewho comes from an African-American resort town in northwest Michigan.

A slender and elegant man, with only one arm and one leg, begins his performance dancing with a crutch. Less than a minute later, he throws the crutch off the stage and continues dancing, to thunderous applause.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Heard was a popular act in the United States and Canada. She danced in the 1948 film ““Pension sadness” and on the 1950s television variety show “You asked for it,” gaining fame in the black press at a time when Hollywood, television and rock ‘n’ roll provided limited opportunities to black artists.

Her dancing overturned public assumptions that people with disabilities were incapable of leading full lives, and she boldly turned a derogatory term, “crip,” into a stage name, declaring pride in her body’s unique power of expression. (More recently, some members of the disability movement have reclaimed the term “crip” to express pride in their identities.)

Heard’s advocacy for people with disabilities didn’t end there; For years he volunteered at agencies that supported them. He was known to say, “One of my main missions in life is to convince people not to give up.”

Henry Mack Heard was born on November 10, 1924, in Memphis, the son of Lucile (Pollard) and Robert Heard, a cement finisher. Henry always loved music and was inspired by dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, as he told Ebony magazine when he profiled him in 1951.

He learned to dance at age 6 and was performing in clubs by the time he was 14. On January 7, 1939, the car in which he was traveling with his group, the Three Dots, was hit by a train at an unguarded crossing in Memphis. Everyone in the car died except Henry, who suffered devastating injuries that required the amputation of his right arm and leg.

After multiple surgeries, he thought his life as a dancer was over and was tempted to give up. But he decided not to do it. “I had seen blind and crippled people standing on corners with their tin cups and pencils,” he told The Columbus Star in 1958, “and I decided I wanted to do more with my life than be the object of public curiosity and pity. “

Heard credited Gip “Sandman” Roberts, a comedian and singer, for encouraging him to train to dance again. He initially danced with a woman before taking off as a solo artist in nightclubs and in a revival of a variety show, “Silas Green From New Orleans.”

While Heard found a place on variety shows that might seem like relics of vaudeville, her musicality evoked the styles of sophisticated tap dancers like Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs and Baby Laurence, individualists who played with the rhythmic surprises of bebop.

Her innovative dancing was evident in “Boarding House Blues,” starring Moms Mabley as the owner of a cash-strapped boarding house. To raise money, the tenants put on a show and Heard is the opening act. He begins using his crutch as he dances a Charleston step accompanied by Lucky Millinder and his orchestra. He so he slides his crutch off the stage at the end of a turn and continues dancing, sculpting accents in the air with his free arm and punctuating a drum beat with backward steps.

Heard’s removal of the crutch was part of her theatrics, said Constance Valis Hill, professor emeritus of dance and acting at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “She definitely has control of the look,” she said. “She has the audience completely in her hands.”

She added: “You look at his foot, his arm and his hip. You forget that there is no other arm or leg. You are simply looking at the beauty of the instruments he plays on. He is a full body dancer.”

Heard performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Alabam Club in Los Angeles, the Howard in Washington, DC, and Club DeLisa in Chicago, sharing the bill with Della Reese, Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker. When Detroit’s Club Juana wanted to bring in top bands, it hired Heard as emcee for jazz luminaries like Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. He sometimes sang, once in a duet with blues performer Gladys Bentley.

Wherever she traveled, Heard entertained patients in hospitals, including veterans’ hospitals, refuting the prevailing attitude that people with disabilities were pitiful charity cases. He appeared at community events hosted by the NAACP, as well as Democratic Party fundraisers, and founded a long-running annual Christmas benefit for children at the Illinois School and Rehabilitation Center in Chicago, often using his own money to gifts and dinners. and dress like Santa.

Heard was one of several African-American tap dancers, such as Peg-Leg Bates, Big Time Crip and Jesse James, whose art made use of percussion as a mobility aid.

“There was a place for people who were artists,” said Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor emeritus of English and bioethics at Emory University and a leader in the field of disability studies. he said in a telephone interview. And he added: “They were able to have jobs when many people with disabilities were simply locked up and institutionalized.”

Audiences loved Heard’s acrobatic mastery of balance, her speed and the versatility of her dance moves, from Boogie-Woogie to mambo. Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of dance and black studies at Northwestern University, said Heard excelled at the spin step, a component of the Charleston, the Suzie Q and some of James Brown’s moves.

“Heard finds a lot of rhythmic variation in it,” Professor DeFrantz added by phone. “He gives us accents, cross rhythms and downbeats, and little secondary rhythms. We obtain all this through him manipulating his weight and his foot. And the performance is topped with his own genius.”

On the television variety show “You Ask for It,” Heard peppered three quick numbers with pyrotechnics: In the first, she interspersed double-time steps with triplets and trenches; in the second, he snapped his fingers in a joyous rumba. To the end of him, he went up and down stairs Bill Robinson style.

She eventually settled in Chicago, married, had children, and divorced. He liked tennis, swimming and cycling.

In 1959, Heard was assaulted while returning home from a nightclub and, in early 1960, fell, suffering a fractured skull and shoulder, as well as a damaged eardrum. Although prominent friends in Chicago offered him benefits, work was scarce.

In later years, he worked as a ward clerk for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation and volunteered for the Goodwill charity, Social and Rehabilitation Service in Washington, and the Illinois Board of Rehabilitation. At the same time, he criticized these organizations for “taking advantage of the disabled” by giving them degrading jobs and paying them a pittance.

“Everyone is very polite and wants me to volunteer my services,” he told The Defender in 1971. “But no one is interested in hiring me to work full time with people who need help. In fact, there is simply no substantial program moving in that direction and, as a result, the disabled continue to struggle for the few ‘charitable’ jobs they can get.”

He died at his home in Chicago on September 11, 1991, after a long illness. He was 66 years old.

Heard would probably be pleased to know that many cutting-edge artists today are redefining both dance and disability through inclusive choreography and design. As Garland-Thomson, the Emory scholar, said: “Her distinctive movements anticipated the work of Axis Dance Company, Kinetic Light, Boston Dance Skillsand Krip-Hop Nation,” groups that produce performances by people with disabilities and improve public access.

Meisha Rosenberg is working on a biography of early 20th century jazz musician Chick Webb. Her essay about him appears in the upcoming anthology. “Strange inheritance” co-edited by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.

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