This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
Today is the birthday of the late, great Gregory Hines (1946-2003). While his brother and dad (both named Maurice) also tapped (the three — and then two — of them were originally together in an act), it was Gregory who became a movie and television star. To my mind, he almost single-handedly rehabilitated tap in the public consciousness. He (and the many others who followed) did such a good job at that transformation, that it is hard now to remember how things were just before it came along, when tap was regarded as not only intolerably old-fashioned, but even racist.
The turnabout had come in the 1960s, when black political consciousness began to be raised. At that time, show business was one of the few areas of public life where African Americans had made any inroads careerwise. At the time, it started to seem a shame that many people seemed to think that tap dancing was all black people could do — it became associated with watermelon, fried chicken and other negative stereotypes, rather than a cultural folkway to be proud of. Its foremost exemplar in mainstream show business by the 60s and 70s was Sammy Davis Jr, whose old school show biz antics were a tough pill for many (including this commentator) to swallow. Ironically, though, there’s no arguing with Sammy’s dancing — it’s the purest, best thing he did. (I can do without his singing, his patter, or his attempts at humor).
Hines represented a new generation. When he was younger, he’d been in a rock band. As opposed to high energy Vegas insincerity, Hines brought a laconic, matter-of-fact cool to his performances, an attitude that made you come to him — and want to do so. There was a bit of informality to him, as though you were in the rehearsal studio and he suddenly said “Here—watch this”, and improvised a dance.
He also turned out to be an excellent actor, fulfilling that unrealized dream of the Nicholas Brothers..to go from being a young African American tap dancer cast solely in films for specialty dance numbers…all the way to being a full fledged movie star. (The Cotton Club, Tap, White Nights, Waiting to Exhale, etc etc)
He was only 57 when it was very suddenly announced that he had died of cancer. The news came as an awful shock.
Here he is in a clip well worth watching. It’s Hines in a dance tribute at the Apollo Theatre to tap pioneer Teddy Hale:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.