featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash News, 8-11: Taps for a Dancer

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 rafting race.

"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 grandson.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home