Gregory Hines in White Nights

Gregory Oliver Hines (1946–2003) spent his boyhood days at Harlem’s Apollo Theater with his brother Maurice, watching tap dancers like Chuck Green, Charles “Honi” Coles, Teddy Hale, The Nicholas Brothers and Howard “Sandman” Sims. Between performances, the hoofers would gather in the dimly lit, costume-cluttered basement to jam on the worn-in rehearsal floor. It was here, trading steps with tap legends, that Hines fell in love with the artform and learned how to develop his own rhythms. “They really loved him, because he could think on his feet and didn’t have any fear,” says Hines’ brother Maurice.

A true triple threat, Gregory Hines ultimately became one of tap’s most recognized performers and preservers of the art. He appeared in major motion pictures, on television and on Broadway, and for more than half a century, he carried on the tap lineage, eventually sharing it with a new generation of tappers. And in October 2009, Dance Affiliates launched a 10-week national tour of Thank You Gregory, A Tribute to the Legends of Tap to honor the man who bridged the generations and transformed rhythm tap into a respected dance style.

Born on February 14, 1946, in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Hines began his formal tap training at age 3 with Henry LeTang. Two years later, he and 8-year-old Maurice were performing professionally as “The Hines Kids.” They toured the world, dancing in nightclubs, theaters and on TV shows, including three dozen appearances on “The Tonight Show.” In 1954, the brothers made their Broadway debut in The Girl in Pink Tights and in 1964, their father, Maurice Hines Sr., joined the touring act (renamed “Hines, Hines & Dad”) as a drummer.

But unfortunately, the Hines brothers caught the tail end of an era. While their fame was slowly rising, tap’s popularity declined. Big bands fell out of fashion and jazz nightclubs shuttered. And Broadway, encouraged by the success of West Side Story, turned to ballet and jazz as storytelling forms. The hoofers who had mentored young Gregory had a difficult time finding work. Even Hines found himself pulling away from tap. In the early 1970s, after months of soul-searching, Hines left his family act, his first wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Daria, and fled to Venice Beach, California, where he formed the jazz-rock ensemble Severance and adopted the hippie lifestyle.

Five years later, Hines returned to his passion. He moved back to New York and soon landed a role alongside Maurice in the musical revue Eubie! (1978), which was being choreographed by LeTang. This performance earned the natural rhythm-maker his first Tony nomination, which was followed by two more for his work in Comin’ Uptown (1979) and Sophisticated Ladies (1981). Ten years later, Hines finally took home a Tony Award for his lead role in Jelly’s Last Jam (1992).

As Hines’ career blossomed, he continued to make tap more visible while pushing the genre’s boundaries. He broke away from the polished, foursquare tempos of the 1930s to captivate audiences with hard, roughed-up, low-to-the-ground, free-flowing, funky rhythms—movements expanded by his protégé Savion Glover and generations to come. “He felt tap should be as modern and new as Twyla Tharp. Top hats and tails were out, tight Armani T-shirts were in,” says close friend and tap historian Jane Goldberg.

In the 1985 film White Nights, Hines tapped to contemporary music and went toe-to-toe with ballet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov. “This film put both artforms on equal footing. It said, ‘This tap dancer and tap dance are at the same level as Mikhail in ballet,’” says Tony Waag, the artistic director of the American Tap Dance Foundation. Hines also starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s Harlem jazz club crime-drama The Cotton Club and 1989’s Tap, a movie that experimented with rock music and brought together a teenage Glover and legends like Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde and Bunny Briggs. “He made tap cool to young people in terms of using contemporary music and innovating how we use our feet,” says hoofer Jason Samuels Smith. “He was the motivating force behind our whole generation’s movement.”

Having witnessed the older generations struggle through tap’s dormancy, Hines made tireless efforts to ensure tap’s vitality in the 21st century. When Congress was considering legislation to create National Tap Dance Day, Hines showed up in Washington, DC, to speak to the Congressional Black Caucus. This day has been celebrated on May 25 since 1989. In 2001, Hines helped Waag launch Tap City, a New York tap festival, and just a week before he died, Hines was supposed to participate in the inaugural Los Angeles Tap Festival. “It was so humbling for me to hear how eager he was to be a part of it,” says Samuels Smith, the festival’s co-creator.

On August 9, 2003, Hines passed away at age 57, after a 13-month battle with liver cancer. While his passing was a great loss, he left a timeless legacy through his generous support of the tap community. Hines used to say he was “just a tap dancer,” says Maurice. “I told him, ‘You’re not just a tap dancer, you’re the tap dancer.’” DT

Katie Rolnick is an editor for Dance Spirit magazine. She holds an MA in journalism from New York University.

Photo of Gregory Hines by Anthony Crickmay, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives.

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