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Hines, Gregory

Gregory Hines
1946–2003

Dancer, actor, singer

Gregory Hines, an actor and veteran performer, is considered the greatest tap dancer of his time. He began dancing at three years of age, and his style and presentation were perfected over the years. Hines took his craft as an accomplished dancer to the stage and screen and brought renewed attention to tap. His warm eyes, easy charm, and comedic style earned him many awards for his performances, and his contribution to the development of tap dancing both preserved this art form for the next generation and took it to greater heights.

Hines was born in New York City, New York on February 14, 1946. He was the second son born to Alma Iola and Maurice Robert Hines. The family lived in Washington Heights, an integrated neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side, near Harlem. Hines's father was a club bouncer at night and sold soda during the day. His mother had great hopes for Gregory and his older brother Maurice and encouraged them to learn tap dancing. She signed Maurice up for tap dance lessons when he was just four and a half. Gregory, who was just over two, and his mother attended Maurice's first lesson. Wanting to participate in the lessons, the toddler Gregory cried until he was allowed to join his brother. With one hand holding his brother's hand, and the other with his thumb in his mouth, Gregory followed along by mimicking his brother's movements. He was too young to take lessons, but he already showed a talent for tap dancing. Gregory was eventually enrolled in lessons. Both he and his brother took lessons from the famed Broadway choreog-rapher Henry LeTang, considered the greatest tap-dancing teacher in the world.

Young Hines and his brother became professionals at the ages of five and eight. They used the stage name "The Hines Kids," developed a song-and-dance act, and toured in nightclubs around the United States and abroad. They regularly performed jazz tap at the renowned Harlem's Apollo Theater in New York. As regular performers they also had the opportunity to see other Apollo regulars such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the dance duo Buck and Bubbles, and other great performers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters. Wednesday was amateur night and greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaugh, and James Brown began their careers there. The theater often served somewhat as day care for the boys. Their mother took them to the Apollo after school and picked them up after the last show. Often they would watch tap legends such as Honi Coles, Sandman Sims, and the Nicholas Brothers. It was tap-dance great Teddy Hale who inspired Hines the most. Teddy Hale and Sandman Sims during breaks in the show would pass on steps and techniques to the young dancers. Hines noticed that Hale would do one performance and return and do a second show that was completely different. He came to realize that Hale did not have a set act but made up his performances as he went along. Hines saw this as a challenge which encouraged his interest in improvisation.

Hines's family had a mixed heritage. His father was black, and his grandmother on his father's side was Ora Hines, a showgirl at the Cotton Club. Performers at the Cotton Club were required to be light skinned which denoted a mixed heritage. His mother's ancestry was also mixed and included Irish, Jewish, Panamanian, and Portuguese, along with her African American heritage. For Hines there was no ambivalence about his ethnicity. He knew he was black. Hines and his brother attended Willard Mace, a school for professional children. They were the only blacks. They also attended Quintano School for Young Professionals where other future performers such as Patty Duke and Bernadette Peters attended. Hines became quite aware of his race while traveling in the South. Segregation was part of the times in 1957 when Hines almost made the mistake of drinking from a whites only fountain. He quickly learned what it meant to be black in the deep South.

Chronology

1946
Born in New York, New York on February 14
1949
Learns tap from older brother Maurice
1951
Begins dancing professionally
1963
Creates act "Hines, Hines and Dad"
1973
Moves to Venice, California
1978
Earns first of four Tony nominations
1981
Wins first movie role in History of the World, Part I
1984
Stars in film Cotton Comes to Harlem with brother Maurice
1989
Wins Emmy for PBS special Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America; appears in film Taps
1992
Wins a Tony award for musical Jelly's Last Jam
1994
Directs White Man's Burden
1995
Starring role in The Preacher's Wife
1997
Stars in his own TV show The Gregory Hines Show
2003
Dies in Los Angeles, California on August 9

Hines and his brother performed in night clubs on weekends during the school year and more extensively during the summer. They also earned roles in the musical comedy The Girl in Pink Tights. When Hines was nine, he fell on a tree stump that penetrated his right eye. The accident affected his vision for the rest of his life. Fortunately it did not stop his tap dancing, which he greatly enjoyed. As "The Hines Kids" got older they billed themselves as "The Hines Brothers." In 1963 their father Maurice Hines Sr., who had learned how to play the drums, joined the group and their name changed to "Hines, Hines, and Dad." With the arrival of Hines Sr., the family would be together when touring. Hines in 1966 married and later divorced Patricia Panella, a dance therapist. They had one child, Daria, who was born in 1971. The group went on to play on numerous television shows, such as The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. While touring Europe they performed at London's famed Palladium and at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. As the 1960s saw tap lose its audience, "Hines, Hines and Dad" continued to perform as a musical comedy group with Maurice as the straight man and Gregory as the comedian. Frustrated by the stagnation of the group, Gregory Hines began to reassess his career goals.

Ventures Away from Dancing and Family

The group was enjoying moderate success, but Hines was extremely unhappy. Money was short, his marriage was falling apart, and he often used cocaine to try and escape a way of life that he had maintained for twenty-five years. Hines's relationship with his brother was also strained, and they often did not speak to each other. Hines knew the partnership was over when he and his brother Maurice had an argument that nearly ended in blows.

In 1973 Hines moved to Venice, California. He took to the hippie lifestyle and experimented with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. He became a black belt in karate and during the day worked as a busboy, waiter, and karate instructor. At night he played in a jazz-rock group he formed called Severance. While in Venice, Hines met Pamela Koslow, a producer who later became his wife. The time spent in Venice gave Hines a renewed sense of himself as he learned to be self-reliant and further embrace his role as a father. He joined a group of men who discussed how men treated women and the expression of one's feelings. He also took a class for single fathers. In 1978, Hines returned to New York to be closer to his daughter.

Home and the Revival of Tap

Once in New York and having already reconciled with his brother, Hines got back to performing. Maurice convinced his agent to submit his brother's name for an audition for a role in The Last Minstrel Show. Hines got the job and in 1978 put his tap shoes back on after eight years. When the show closed in Philadelphia, Hines teamed up with his brother for the Broadway production Eubie. The play, which honored composer Eubie Blake, opened in 1978 with Hines as a tap dancer and singer. His performance earned him the first of four Tony Award nominations as outstanding featured actor in a musical. His successful run in Eubie was followed by the play Comin' Uptown in 1979, which earned him a second Tony Award nomination. This musical was an all-black version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in which Hines played Scrooge. In 1980 he appeared in the show Black Broadway, which traced the history of black musicians through the first half of the twentieth century. The stars in the musical were seasoned performers and dance greats including John W. Bubbles of the tap duo Buck and Bubbles. Sophisticated Ladies (1981) earned Hines a third Tony nomination. Sophisticated Ladies, a revue of Duke Ellington's songs, helped to showcase his talents as a dancer, singer, and comedian. Although Hines's co-star was renowned dancer Judith Jameson, it was his performance that stood out because of his quick movements involving jumps and turns and the lightening speed of his tap. In 1981, after a year's run with Sophisticated Ladies, Hines left the musical while on the West Coast. He also married Pamela Koslow, who had a daughter Jessica from a previous marriage. Two years later they had son Zachary.

Film and Other Performing Arts

On the West Coast Hines began his film career. An early role was in the Mel Brooks film History of the World Part I. Hines played a Roman slave. The next role was as a medical examiner investigating a series of deaths in the film Wolfen (1981). When producer Robert Evans began casting for the major film Cotton Club, Hines went after a role. He set his sights on the part of Sandman Williams, an upwardly mobile dancer at the Cotton Club. Hines told Ebony magazine: "I started calling [Evans] every day and going over to his house telling him how perfect I was for the part." Hines had a personal interest in the film since his grandmother had been a Cotton Club performer. Also in the film was an impressive group of tap dancers, including Charles "Honi" Coles. Frances Ford Coppola, the director, wanted to present old-fashion tap dancing. Hines particularly liked working with Coppola since he researched tap and viewed endless footage of tap dancing. Once he had the role he wanted, Hines found himself reflecting on real life as the character breaks up with his brother, just as Hines had broken up with his brother Maurice. Hines and Maurice were cast as dance partners and brothers in the film. When the scenes regarding the breakup were finished, both Hines and Maurice were in tears along with their parents who were on the set that day. When the film came out in 1984 Hines's performance was seen as a bright spot in the film.

Hines's film career continued to blossom as he appeared in White Nights in 1985 with Mikhail Barysh-nikov and Isabella Rossellini. Baryshnikov, an acclaimed ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union in real life, plays a similar role in the film. Hines plays a dancer who flees to the Soviet Union to protest the racism functioning in draft practices during the Vietnam War. Together the actors performed incredible dance routines. In 1986's Running Scared Hines co-starred with Billy Crystal, and in 1987's Off Limits he co-starred with Willem Defoe. One film that combined the talents of tap dancing and acting for Hines was Tap, which opened in 1988. This film was the first to merge tap with the musical styles of funk and contemporary rock. The film had a host of tap greats, including co-star Sammy Davis Jr., Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, Harold Nicholas, Bunny Briggs, Arthur Duncan, Steve Condos, and Pat Rico. In the television documentary Bojangles, Hines played the role of tap great William "Bojangles" Robinson. Hines stepped behind the camera in 1994 and directed the film White Man's Burden. Making full use of his talents Hines released a singing duet with Luther Vandross in 1986 called "There's Nothing Better Than Love" and an album released in 1988 entitled Gregory Hines.

After completing the film A Rage in Harlem (1991), which starred Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, and Richard Pryor, Hines returned to the stage. In 1992 he earned a fourth nomination and received a Tony Award for the musical Jelly's Last Jam. The musical portrayed the life of jazz musician "Jelly Roll" Morton. Hines's mesmerizing performance in Jelly's Last Jam showed the brilliance of Hines as a singer, dancer, and actor, and changed the ways in which African American musical theater was presented. Previously musical productions focused on African American music with the exception of the musical Dreamgirls. Jelly's Last Jam celebrates the life of "Jelly Roll" Morton and provides a look at the individual challenges and complexities of his life. Morton, who was a light-skinned Creole, was known to have denied his African American heritage while at the same time being drawn to the rhythmic and passionate music of African American ancestry. Hines originally did not like the character of "Jelly Roll" and rejected the part. Encouraged by his wife (who was also the show's co-producer), he attended a workshop performance where he met writer and director George Wolfe. Impressed with Wolfe and recognizing the risk of this new approach to the African American musical he signed on. Hines did have some difficulty delivering some unusually negative lines, but he overcame it and immersed himself in the character. Recognizing that "Jelly Roll" was a piano player, Hines expressed the piano through his dancing. During this production Hines danced for the second time with eighteen-year-old Savion Glover who played "Jelly Roll" as a young man. Glover became a protégé of Hines. Hines's performance was a high point in his stellar career.

Hines appeared in several other successful films relevant to the African American experience, such as Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher's Wife (1996). His talents also took him into television. He earned an Emmy nomination for his performance in Motown Return to the Apollo. His PBS special Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America also received an Emmy Award in 1989.

"Improvography" and His Teachers

Hines became enormously popular because of his style. He coined the word "improvography" to explain his style because he took liberty with rhythms and made up steps as he went along. The first time he remembered experimenting was on The Tonight Show in 1963. He would dance on tempo and then stop in the step and go to another tempo. Other dancers thought something had been wrong with Hines after viewing the show. Hines took their comments as encouragement and a challenge to do more to invigorate tap as an art form. He called the move he improvised on The Tonight Show, "No Time." His style was often likened to that of a jazz musician with the abilities of a composer, who creates lines of melody that come through the sounds of the tap and mirror the precision of a drum. Hines's performances were legendary. He expressed through "improvography" the most respected tap dancing art, the creative and immediately brilliant choreography of a tap master. It was because of Hines that tap dancing moved into the twenty-first century with style and grace. Hines learned a great deal from idols, such as Sammy Davis Jr. who saw Hines's extraordinary talent. Hines was nine years old when he met Davis. He learned a lot about tap from Davis, but he was also touched by his generous, honest, and sincere attitude as a person and an artist. Davis died in 1990 from throat cancer. Hines was at Davis's side when he passed. Hines told the press that Davis made the gesture of passing a basketball to Hines who understood the message and caught it. The passing of the ball was symbolic of carrying on the art of tap dancing.

Hines was always involved in the arts. He participated in the 1991 Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, his own television show in 1997 called The Gregory Hines Show, the 1999 film Once in a Life and numerous other appearances. After suffering from liver cancer, Hines died on August 9, 2003, in Los Angeles, California. A tribute to Hines was held at Harlem's Apollo Theater hosted by Phylicia Rashad and his brother Maurice. Many stars came out to celebrate the great dancer, a kind and generous man who remained true to himself on and off the stage.

REFERENCES

Books

De Angelis, Gina. Gregory Hines. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

Kram, Mark. "Gregory Hines." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 102-104.

Periodicals

Randolph, Laura B. "Gregory Hines on Fame, Family, and His Years of Living Dangerously." Ebony 46 (January 1991): 132-136.

Online

Bridget Byrne. "Tap Star Gregory Hines Dies." E online. http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12299,00.html (Accessed 13 March 2006).

"Gregory Hines." Apple Hot News. http://www.apple.com/hotnews/articles/2003/08/hines/ (Accessed 13 March 2006).

                                       Lean'tin L. Bracks

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