In Honor of National Tap Dance Day, May 25
The talent embodied by one of the Artists We Love – actor and tap dancer extraordinaire Gregory Hines – literally started at the tips of his toes and the bottom of his heels.
Born in New York City on Valentine’s Day 1946 to Alma and Maurice Robert Hines, the latter being a longtime dancer, musician and actor, Gregory’s skills as an entertainer in multiple genres was seemingly part of his DNA.
Almost every bio, and unfortunately obituary, written for Hines, who died in 2003 at age 57 of liver cancer, began with his tap-dancing prowess, crediting him with its revitalization in the 20th century. His skills were well-honed since he’d began dancing at 2-years-old.
Tall, lithe with solemn eyes, lids at half-mast, Hines’ career spanned stage, television and movies but at his core he knew he was a “dancer.”
“I just love to tap-dance,” he told Cigar Aficionado magazine. “I’ve been tapping for 44 years, and for me, it’s the easiest way I can express myself as an artist. I don’t mean it isn’t challenging. It’s just that when I have my tap shoes on, I feel very self-confident. I feel like I can speak from my heart. It’s a way I’ve always been able to get in touch with many different emotions. I put my shoes on and I start to dance, and it’s clear to me what I’m feeling.”
He was an avid improviser of tap steps and rhythms, similar to a drummer doing an extended solo. Hines recast the image of a tap dancer into a serious dance artist while building a new tap style. Tap historian Sally Sommer said Hines “obliterated tempos” and threw “down a cascade of taps like pebbles tossed across the floor. He aligned tap with the latest free-form experiments in jazz and new music and postmodern dance.”
In 2019, Hines was honored with a Black Heritage U.S. postage stamp which featured him smiling on one knee with one foot raised to show the taps on the bottom of his shoe.
Regarded by many dancers as “the precious link between the Golden Age of jazz, tap, and the dance innovations of today,” Hines remains relevant and revered. Here are a few reasons why:
- He started early and learned from legends. At age 5, he began dancing semi-professionally with his older brother Maurice Jr. (named for his father), hitting Miami nightclubs billed as The Hines Brothers, frequently performing with jazz singer, dancer and band leader Cab Calloway. The siblings would perform together for more than 15 years, fixtures at the famed Apollo Theater, watching, working with and learning at the feet of dance legends Charles “Honi” Coles, Howard “Sandman” Sims, the Nicholas Brothers, and notably Teddy Hale, who Hines said was a “personal source of inspiration.”
- He wasn’t afraid to try and fail. In his early 20s, there was a falling out with his family and he briefly quit dancing, moved to California and formed the jazz-rock band Severance. They released one album. Thankfully, that dalliance waned and he headed home where he appeared in The Last Minstrel Show, which returned him to his stage-performing roots. In 1988, he returned to recording when he released a self-titled R&B album with the single “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” featuring his brother Maurice Hines and Luther Vandross. It made it as high as No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
- He expanded his horizons on stage. Following the close of Minstrel Show, Hines continued to pursue stage projects and he landed in Eubie!, a revue featuring the music of composer Eubie Blake, showcasing 23 of his best songs. He was nominated, but lost, a Tony Award® for best actor. He also would perform in Broadway’s Comin’ Uptown (1979-80) and Sophisticated Ladies (1981-83), with his greatest stage success coming in his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Last Jam (1992-93). He won the Tony Award for best actor and choreography for his portrayal of the complex and controversial character, who called himself “the inventor of Jazz” but refused to acknowledge the African-American roots of his music. Hines said the role was difficult because “Jelly Roll Morton (was) not a hero; he’s a human being and not a great one.”
- Then set his sights on movies. His first movie was Mel Brooks’ The History of the World Part I (1981), where he played an sand-dancing slave. Critics loved his star turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club and Wolfen. But the Hines film audiences loved (critics not so much) was White Nights, co-starring ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. We’ll spare you the convoluted plot point that had Hines’ tap-dancing character defecting to Russia, and just say that it is worth it for the dancing that occurs between the “you gotta be kidding” moments. Critic Roger Ebert pulled down the curtain and said “the screenplay was dreamed up to accommodate two dancers with little else in common.” He also speculates how much better it might have been if Hines and Baryshnikov had been allowed just two dance for two hours. His varied filmography includes Running Scared with Billy Crystal, Renaissance Man with Danny DiVito, and Waiting to Exhale with Angela Bassett.
- He flourished on TV as well. He made multiple television appearances, in drama and comedy series, made-for-TV movies, such as The Tic Code and many dance specials, garnering seven Emmy Award nominations with one win for voice work in the animated children’s Little Bill. Hines and his brother made a precious appearance on Sesame Street where they demonstrated the concept of “near and far” as only great tap dancers could. He had had his own television series, The Gregory Hines Show (1997) where he played a widower with a son re-entering the dating world. It was critically well received but died on the vine as part of ABC’s Friday night lineup. In its final episode, anticipating cancellation, Hines and several dancers, look for Dulé Hill, performed a fabulous three-minute tap dancing sequence. And for two years, he appeared on Will & Grace as Ben Doucette, Will Truman’s boss. He was to appear in third season but died before filming began.
- He never forgot his roots. Hines was a steadfast advocate for tap dancing and successfully lobbied for the creation of National Tap Dance Day, celebrated annually on May 25. He was on the board of Manhattan Tap, Heather Cornell’s dance ensemble that was a training ground for young performers; a member of Jazz Tap Ensemble and vocal member of the American Tap Dance Foundation. He also took young dancers under his wing, such as Dulé Hill and his protégé, Tony winning choreographer Savion Glover. Together they starred in the 1989 drama Tap about an ex-con torn between a return to burglary or tap dancing. Glover also appeared with Hines on a PBS special Gregory Hines’ Tap Dance in America.