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News, 8-11: Taps for a Dancer
GREGORY HINES, FEBRUARY 14, 1946 - AUGUST 9, 2003
By Paul Ben-Itzak, Tom
Patrick, and Darrah Carr
Copyright 2003 Tom Patrick, Darrah Carr, & The Dance Insider
Tap star Gregory Hines,
one of the leading dancers of his generation and an ambassador for
dance to the mass media who never forgot where he came from, passed
away in Los Angeles Saturday from cancer, the Associated Press reported
Sunday and the New York Times in today's editions, adding that Hines
had died en route to the hospital. Gregory Hines was 57.
Hines, who made his
Broadway debut in 1954 playing a shoe-shine boy opposite Zizi Jeanmaire
in "The Girl in Pink Tights," choreographed by Agnes de Mille, was
nominated five times for the Tony Award, as actor or choreographer,
winning for best actor in a musical in 1992 for "Jelly's Last Jam."
The musical, George
C. Wolfe's straight-talking take the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton,
was "a real departure" for the American musical and particularly
the African-American Musical, Hines told Cigar Afficianado's Mervyn
Rothstein in the early '90s. "Those kinds of shows are usually all
singing and all dancing," he explained. "Everybody's happy. I've
been in those shows and was happy to be in them. But I think our
situation now is different. We need to reach for something more.
First of all, I don't think African-American people are particularly
happy now. And if you show them as happy on the stage, it's not
true. This is not to say that we shouldn't entertain, because that's
what the musical stage is for. But we can also do more now, and
learn something about ourselves, and the human condition, the condition
of being an American."
As depicted by Wolfe,
Morton was raised to deny his African-American heritage, an upbringing
reflected in some of the lines Hines, in the title role, was asked
to utter. "In one line," he told Rothstein, "where I'm talking about
Jelly as a young man, I say, 'classically trained by the finest
musicians of the day, while others of darker hue lived in shacks
and crooned the blues....' And I say to my best friend...., "Why
don't you just be a good little nigger and put on that coat?'"
But Hines proved his
mettle as an actor by finding a way into the character -- through
his own family history. "I come from a background where people on
my mother's side of the family are very light-skinned and the people
on my father's side are dark-skinned," he told Rothstein. "And when
my mother married my father, my mother's father refused to come
to the wedding. He didn't want her to marry a dark-skinned African-American.
I loved them all, but as I grew up I could see and feel a certain
subtle superiority that the lighter-skinned African-Americans felt
toward the darker ones. And the more I read about Jelly, the more
I could understand."
His film and television
roles would also offer challenges, one of the toughest coming, perhaps,
in Richard LaBrie's 1996 "Good Luck," in which he played Bernard
Lemley, a wheelchair-bound dental technician trying to convince
Ole, a recently blinded wide receiver, to join his team in a white-water
"My character had been
in the chair for seven years," Hines told Ability Magazine in 1996.
"He had gone through his anger, depression, drug and alcohol abuse.
He had gone through everything, now he was up, he was happy, he
was filled with his dream. He was the perfect man to help Ole deal
with what he knew he had to go through.... The first time I sat
in the chair, I felt anything but up, it was very emotional for
me. I had a chair in my hotel room, a chair at rehearsal, and I
was trying to spend as much time as I could in the chair. When I
started moving around in my hotel I realized that my room and the
hotel was not set up for people in wheelchairs; that actually angered
me after a little while. I couldn't get in and out of my room. I
had one of those doors with that thing on it so it wouldn't slam,
it was heavy, it was very hard! The maids and everyone knew I was
working to get into this part, but every now and then they'd say,
'Oh, let me help you Mr. Hines.' I can remember feeling very angry,
and saying 'No! I can do it myself!' From that point of view it
was very emotional for me to get myself to the point to sit in the
chair and be 'up.' I spent some time with the wheelchair rugby team
in Long Beach, California, they went easy on me I might add. That
was a very enlightening experience."
"They were quadraplegics,
paraplegics and guys with all types of disabilities. They were very
generous with me. Everybody was willing to talk about their particular
accident, what they had to deal with and how they got back in touch
with their competitors' spirit. How they got started in wheelchair
rugby, swimming, mixed tennis, and basketball. For some of these
guys this is their life, competing on all different levels and enjoying
themselves. Listen man, I was gone! They passed me the ball. I thought
this is something I can crow about, I was going to score! From out
of nowhere a little Hispanic guy comes over, he came at me at top
speed and then he stopped on a dime and winked at me. He was letting
me know what could have happened, because they bang into each other.
They have done serious damage to each other that they cannot feel.
They play all night and this is just practice; had this been a game
he would have up-ended me. I could tell the guy had the spirit and
the heart of a true athlete and it had always been there. Even with
that, it was difficult for me because I was with them practicing,
talking and hanging around. I felt all kinds of things."
With a career that encompassed
hits in many media -- including his own television show and starring
roles in Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 movie "The Cotton Club" and,
opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, Taylor Hackford's 1985 "White Nights"
-- it would be easy to thumbnail Hines's contribution as being one
of versatility. But the worlds he most successfully stradled, in
a dance career that started half a century ago when he teamed up
with his brother Maurice, were those distinguished by style.
Gregory Hines has always
been emblematic of a performer straddling the two worlds of rigorous
attention/precision, on the one hand, and of seeming wonderfully
at ease, on the other. Students of tap were awed by his astonishing
talent, the clarity of his taps and aggressive musicality, all somehow
topped by a worry-free countenance and contagious grin -- making
for the kind of dancer one could watch for hours. His work on "Jelly's
Last Jam" and the 1981 "Sophisticated Ladies" were star-making stuff,
revealing as well. on the latter's "Beginning to See the Light,"
a powerhouse singer.
More recently, performing
solo and in tandem with protege Savion Glover at a benefit for the
New York City Tap Festival two summers ago, Hines mesmerized the
audience at the Duke on 42nd street.
After accepting the
festival's Hoofer award, the DI's Darrah Carr wrote, Hines "treated us to an amazing solo,
punctuating his intricate rhythms with comments and jokes to the
audience. This created a casual, intimate performance that matched
the effortless quality of his tapping. As a dancer, Hines is a blend
of complete technical mastery and utterly relaxed execution. Hines
made his way offstage, tapping and gesturing until the lights came
down. At that point, quite unexpectedly, while we were still in
the dark, there was a volley of absolutely thunderous tapping. A
follow spot eventually revealed, much to the delight of both the
audience and cast, none other than Savion Glover, whose attendance
had been merely an unconfirmed rumor until then.
"Glover is a spitfire
performer, delivering explosive, extremely physical tap. He attacks
the surface of the stage, treatingrhythm as if it is something he
is driven to both conquer and create. He ended his restless solo
triumphantly, with an expansive back arch, arms thrown wide, chest
open to the spotlight.
"As if this wasn't enough
excitement, Hines then returned and the two legends began dancing
together -- playing, improving, riffing off of each other, having
fun but remaining extraordinarily focused throughout.... It was
probably the most real duet I've ever seen. Real because it was
created right there in front of us. Real because the relationship
between these two was completely believable. We witnessed the conversation
between their feet unfold in the moment. There was no set, no costume,
and no pretense. Just rhythm -- hard, driving rhythm. Complex, layered
rhythm. Rhythm that consumed them and then filled the space around
us, so that both the dancers and the audience were fully present,
engaged, and absorbed by the sound.
"What is it about rhythm
that is so satisfying? I usually associate rhythm and unison as
being an engaging combination for the audience. Indeed, the success
of shows like the Rockettes reviews and 'Riverdance' is a testament
to that. But with Hines and Glover, it was rhythm and juxtaposition
that was so powerful. Not only do they have opposite styles -- Hines
being so smooth and Glover being more staccato -- but they built
incredibly complex towers of sound through contrasting rhythms.
It was amazing that just two people, a total of four feet, could
produce and than maintain such all-encompassing sound. It seemed
I could feel not just boundless energy, but light and heat emanating
from them. It reminded me of firework displays on the Fourth of
July: Just when you think it must be over, that it can't possibly
get any better, even bigger and more colorful displays appear to
delight and surprise you.
"The fantastic tap display
did eventually come to an end, though the audience probably could
have sat there watching uninterrupted for another two weeks, mesmerized
by Hines and Glover."
When it came to tap,
Hines didn't just present, he represented. Or, as Jennifer Dunning notes in a
comprehensive obituary in today's New York Times, "Mr. Hines never
forgot his dance origins, however, and was a tireless advocate for
tap in America. In 1988 he lobbied successfully for the creation
of a National Tap Dance Day, now celebrated in 40 cities in the
United States and in eight other nations. In his acceptance speech
in 1996 for an award given him by Career Transition for Dancers
at its annual benefit gala, he berated the gala's organizers for
not including tap on the program." (Please note: After a certain
period of time, the Times charges a fee for accessing its archives.)
As noted by the Times,
in addition to his brother, Maurice Jr., and father, Maurice Sr.,
Gregory Hines is survived by his fiance, Negrita Jayde; a daughter,
Daria Hines; a son, Zach; a stepdaughter, Jessica Koslow; and a
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