When Gregory Hines died August 9 in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, the shock reverberated through a number of worlds. He had shone in so many ways: a stellar tap dancer, choreographer, actor, teacher, mentor, loved one. If you missed his appearances at tap festivals, you might have enjoyed his gritty portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway. Although you might never have seen him tap, you might have caught him in one of his appearances on Will & Grace.
His death caught most of us off guard; he let only those closest to him know that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer a little over a year ago. He didn’t want to stop working, and he was going to get well. Tapper and tap historian Jane Goldberg saw his solo show in Morristown, New Jersey, in March and says he was in great form.
Hines grew up in tap at the tail end of the big-band era, along with his older brother, Maurice Jr. If you start tap classes at three, and flash onstage as half of an act called “The Hines Kids” that plays four shows a night at a club, you can easily burn out young. Hines kept at it through “The Hines Brothers” and, starting in 1963 — when Maurice Hines Sr. joined the act — through “Hines, Hines and Dad.” He must have been eight when he made his Broadway debut as a shoeshine boy in The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), choreographed by Agnes de Mille.
It’s a pleasant irony that having taken one of the stereotypical roles then available to a black performer, he returned to Broadway in the ’90s as a mature actor, playing Jelly Roll Morton — an artist who wished to be thought of as a serious composer, not just a piano man — in Jelly’s Last Jam. The show veered away from the early musical comedies, with their images of happy black folks dancing their feet off as shoeshine boys, porters, and nimble hired help; Hines won a Tony in 1992 for his performance as the embittered Morton.
Hines did leave the family act, in 1973, to form a rock band, Severance. (As a baby boomer, he fell between two generations of tappers and may have felt the lack of a vibrant community of dancers his age, and of professional opportunities.) Playing drums vented his rhythmic expertise, but a bass-drum pedal couldn’t satisfy those feet for long. In the 1985 movie White Nights, where he played a sour, sad-eyed expatriate Communist in Cold War Russia to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s feisty kidnapped ballet star, he couldn’t conceal the glee he got out of competing with, and sometimes besting, his co-star. Dancing literally brought his character to life, and the role suited one of his credos. In all his ventures, he aimed to make tap keep up with the times: no tux, no wooing the crowd. Jazz yes, big band yes, but why not funk too? Dapper wasn’t a word you’d use to describe him. He hunkered down into his dancing, his manner easy, his rhythms clear as a bell. But rarely simple. He wanted audiences to think of tap as a complex art that involved both brains and daring, and he considered himself an athlete more than a showman. Learning from the old hoofers like Bunny Briggs, Buster Brown, Chuck Green, and Honi Coles, he pushed the art form and inspired a generation of young tap wizards, notably Savion Glover.
Because of his presence on the stage, in movies, and on television, he was better known to the general public than most tap dancers, and he used his fame to enhance the field. Hines was the driving force behind Nick Castle’s 1989 movie Tap, which he co-choreographed with Henry LeTang. Jane Goldberg says that for a sequence in which he wanted the women to trade eights, she thought she’d improvise. Hines wasn’t taking any chances; he choreographed her spontaneity. Tap jams were one thing; movies dogged you for life. As a board member and co-chairman of Tony Waag’s New York City Tap Festival, he usually made a spectacular appearance; this July he wasn’t there (although a fine piece of his choreography for three women was). Waag said work had gotten in the way of his showing up, mentioning an early Hollywood call. He was some kind of hero to his peers. Let the band play a slow march. Muffled taps, please. But keep his spirit alive and experimenting.
Research assistance: Danceinsider.com