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Gregory Hines (1946-2003)

By Constance Valls Hill

Gregory Hines, jazz tap dancer, singer, actor, musician, and creator of improvised tap choreography, was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City, the son of Maurice Hines Sr. and Alma Hines.  He began dancing around the age of three, turned professional at age five, and for fifteen years performed with his older brother Maurice as The Hines Kids, making nightclub appearances across the country. While Broadway teacher and choreographer Henry LeTang created the team’s first tap dance routines, the brothers’ absorption of technique came from watching and working with the great black tap masters, whenever and wherever they performed at the same theaters. They practically grew up backstage at the Apollo Theater, where they witnessed the performances and the advice of such tap dance legends as Charles “Honi” Coles, Howard “Sandman” Sims, the Nicholas Brothers, and Teddy Hale, who was Gregory’s personal source of inspiration.

Gregory and Maurice then grew into the Hines Brothers. When Gregory was eighteen, he and Maurice were joined by their father, Maurice Sr., on drums, becoming Hines, Hines and Dad. They toured internationally and appeared frequently on The Tonight Show, but the younger Hines was restless to get away from the non-stop years on the road, so he left the group in his early twenties and “retired” (so he said) to Venice, California. For a time he left dancing behind, exploring alternatives that included his forming a jazz-rock band called Severence. He released an album of original songs in 1973.

When Hines moved back to New York City in the late 1970s, he immediately landed a role in The Last Minstrel Show. The show closed in Philadelphia, but launched him back into the performing arts, and just a month later came Eubie (1978), a certified Broadway hit which earned him the first of four Tony nominations. He next played Scrooge, a stingy and heartless Harlem slum landlord who finds salvation in the ghosts of Christmases past, in the Broadway musical Comin’ Uptown (1979), an updated black urban adaptation of Charles Dickens’ s A Christmas Carol, in which he received critical praise for his “roof-raising dances.” That led to another nomination, and Sophisticated Ladies (1981) led to a third. “It’s no secret that Mr. Hines may be the best tap dancer of our day, but he’s never had a chance to show himself to quite the advantage that he does here,” Frank Rich raved in the New York Times about Sophisticated Ladies. “Wearing slicked-back hair, a series of sleek dinner outfits and a raffish smile, he’s more than a dancer-- he’s the frisky Ellington spirit incarnate.” Of Hines’s big Act Two solo, Rich wrote: “He sweeps about gently, and then lets loose with cataclysmic force; he takes big leaps and then tucks in his wings for a dazzling display of terpsichorean precision. The man is human lightning, and he just can’t be contained.” (Frank Rich,“Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’” New York Times, 2 March 1981,C13)

In 1992, Hines received the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his riveting portrayal of the jazz man Jelly Roll Morton in George C. Wolfe’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam, sharing a Tony nomination for choreography for that show with Hope Clark and Ted Levy.  Hines made his initial transition from dancer/singer to film actor in Mel Brooks’s hilarious The History of the World, Part I (1981), playing the role of a Roman Slave; one scene sees him sand-dancing in the desert. He followed that in quick succession with Wolfen, an allegorical mystery directed by Michael Wadleigh that is now a cult hit; in it, Hines played the role of a coroner.  In 1984, he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Cotton Club (1984). Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote about Hines’ rare screen presence in the film: “He doesn’t sneak up on you. He’s so laid back, so self assured and so graceful, whether acting as an ambitious hoofer or tap dancing, alone or in tandem with his brother, Maurice, that he forces YOU to sneak up on HIM. The vitality and comic intelligence that have made him a New York favorite in Eubie and Sophisticated Ladies  translate easily to the screen.” (Vincent Canby, “Screen: Coppola’s ‘Cotton Club,’” New York Times, 14 December 1984, C4) The film seamlessly blended dance into the framework of the narrative.

The fierce virtuosity of Hines’s dancing is seen in White Nights (1985), in which he played an American defector to the Soviet Union opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, playing a Russian defector to the United States.White Nights is best remembered for the scene that pitted Hines’s tap against Baryshnikov’s ballet in a challenge dance that had them charging at each other across a huge dance studio, each pulling out their fiercest footwork and stretching limbs into insane proportion. One of Baryshnikov’s testosterone-charged responses to Hines’s ferocious stuttering steps was to splay his leg up against a wall and push into a stretch that nearly dislocates leg from hip. Yet in the far more quietly dramatic scenes, which played with bittersweet intensity, Hines illuminated the most profound and deep meanings of what it is to be a black man in America. In doing so, he showed how tap dancing, as an act of survival and salvation, became his metaphor of resistance-- functioning both as an autobiographical text and a symbol of the broader panorama of the black struggle. “I haven’t had a terribly traumatic experience as a black person in this world, but I’ve had experiences,” Hines told Michael J. Bandler about the film. “My nature is to let them go-- I wasn’t going to be burdened with a negative attitude. So for White Nights I had to dig, but the pain was there.” (Michael J. Bandler, “Tapping Into Stardom,” American Way, 10 December 1985, 21-26) 

The furious propulsions of Hines’ dancing in White Nights demonstrated how his improvised rhythm dancing had no musical, physical, or metaphorical boundaries-- it was a profound dramatic expression and defiant act of freedom that allowed audiences to experience an overpowering surge of exhilaration. And that was the genius of Hines’s tap-dancing, why he was so beloved: he was so bodily-and-soulfully adventurous in his rhythmic forays, and so generous. We saw it in his performance with the Jazz Tap Ensemble at New York’s Joyce Theatre in 1986, where he made a brief but energetic appearance. Hunched over and dancing on a miked-and-raised platform placed center stage, he indulged in a meditation on the paddle-and-roll in which each riff added a new tap sound to the bar. With each new phrase, the audience squealed and clapped, and he had to gesture to them, with the wave of an arm, to wait for him to get through his exploration. In his extended foreplay of the rhythmic phrase, languishing in it and thrusting it into an explosive climax, Hines was intoxicating. He was a rhythmic provocateur-- even when facing downward or offstage, he danced to you. He brought sexiness back into the dance. “Hunkered over like a prizefighter, unsmiling, he cocked his head and stared at the floor as if looking for answers,” Sally Sommer observed (Sommer, “Gregory Hines: From Time Step to Timeless,” New York Times, 14 August 2003,E3) of the handsome dancer who was muscled, sexy, new-schooled, and macho; who was not afraid to wear a t-shirt that was tight, show a body of substance, a line that was strong.

In 1989, Hines starred in a film that combined his penchant for both dance and drama, Tap, in which he played Max Washington, a promising but disillusioned tap dancer, out of prison and torn between his craft and the fast-track life of a high-stakes thief; he co-starred with Sammy Davis, Jr., playing Mo, an old hoofer with dreams, who lures Max back to rhythmic life. With full-scale production numbers filmed on location in New York City and Hollywood, and with an original soundtrack created especially for the look and style of the film, Tap became the first dance musical to merge tap dancing with contemporary rock and funk musical styles. It also featured a host of tap legends, including Sandman Sims, Bunny Brigs, Harold Nicholas and Hines’ co-star and show-business mentor, Sammy Davis, Jr.

In 1989, he created and hosted Gregory Hines’s Tap Dance in America, a PBS television special that featured veteran tap dancers, established tap dance companies, and the next generation of tap dancers. The film was nominated for an Emmy award, as was his performance on Motown Returns to the Apollo. Hines made his television series debut in 1998, playing Ben Stevenson, a loving single father hesitantly re-entering the dating world on a CBS-TV series, The Gregory Hines Show. As Ben Doucette, he made up part of the gifted ensemble that won NBC an Emmy Award for “Best Comedy Series” in 2000 for Will and Grace. He also earned an Emmy Nomination as “Outstanding Lead in a Miniseries or Movie” for his portrayal on Showtime of the legendary and groundbreaking dancer/film star Bill Robinson in Bojangles (2001). He made his television directorial debut with The Red Sneakers (2002), for Showtime, and also appeared in the film, which centers on a 17 year-old high school student-- more mathematician than athlete-- who becomes a basketball sensation through the gift of a magical pair of sneakers.

Throughout an amazingly varied career, Hines continued to be a tireless advocate for tap dance in America. In 1988, he lobbied successfully for the creation of National Tap Dance Day, now celebrated in forty cities in the United States and in eight other nations. He was on the boards of directors of the American Tap Dance Orchestra, Manhattan Tap, Jazz Tap Ensemble, and the American Tap Foundation. He was a generous artist and teacher, conscious of his role as a model for such tap dance artists as Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Ted Levy, and Jane Goldberg, creating such tap choreographies as Groove for Jazz Tap Ensemble, and Boom for Barbara Duffy and Company. Like a jazz musician who ornaments a melody with improvisational riffs, Hines improvised within the frame of the dance. His “improvography” demanded the percussive phrasing of a composer, the rhythms of a drummer, and the lines of a dancer. While he was the inheritor of the tradition of black rhythm tap, he was also a proponent of the new. “He purposely obliterated the tempos,” wrote tap historian Sally Sommer, “throwing down a cascade of taps like pebbles tossed across the floor. In that moment, he aligned tap with the latest free-form experiments in jazz and new music and postmodern dance.”(Sally Sommer, “Gregory Hines: From Time Step to Timeless,” New York Times, 14 August 2003, E3) The New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described Hines’ performance in 1995: “Visual elegance, as always, yields to aural power. The complexity of sound grows in intensity and range.” (Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: Jazz Tap to Gregory Hines,” New York Times, 1 October 1986, C24) In addition to his work on the dance and theatre stage, in film and on television, Hines’ wide-ranging career also included making a 1987 album called Gregory Hines, and writing introductions for books Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers,  by Constance Valis Hill, and Savion! My Life in Tap, a biography by Mr. Glover for children. Everything Hines did was influenced by his dancing, as he told Stephen Holden in a 1988 interview with the New York Times: “Everything I do,” he said, including “my singing, my acting, my lovemaking, my being a parent.”

Constance Valis Hill has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University; M.A. in Dance Research and Reconstruction from City College of the University of New York; Bronze Certificate from the International Society of Ballroom Dance; Neutral and a Character Mask certificate from Pierre LeFevre at the Juilliard School. She has worked internationally as a teacher, choreographer, director, and mask specialist, including collaborations with the French playwright Eugene Ionesco; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda; Romanian director Liviu Ciulei; and Toni Morrison on her play Dreaming Emmett. Her writings have appeared in numerous dance periodicals and edited anthologies. Her book, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award; and hermost recent book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010), for which shereceived the Tap Preservation Award from the American Tap Dance Foundation, wassupported by grants from the John D. Rockefeller and John Simon Guggenheimfoundations. As a Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College, sheteaches courses in dance history, performance theory, jazz studies,choreography on camera, and feminist performance; and is working with hercolleagues to establish a black studies core curriculum.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

DeFrantz, Thomas. “Being Savion Glover: Black Masculinity, Translocation, and Tap Dance,” Discourses in Dance 1,1 (Fall 2002):17-28.

Goldberg, Jane. Shoot Me While I’m Happy. New York: Woodshed Productions, 2008.

Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.