Maurice Hines speaks with The Philadelphia Inquirer about honoring his brother in Thank You Gregory

October 6, 2009

Hines tribute opens in a tap-ropos place

By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

In the world of tap dance, there are still arguments about whether the form began in Ireland with step dancing and migrated to African slaves in the South and then to Appalachia where it morphed into clogging - or some version of that in reverse. But no one can deny that for close to a century Philadelphia has been tap's Fountain of Youth.

The late Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles, and LaVaughn Robinson all were born in Philadelphia in the early 1900s and launched their careers here. And while the famed Hines brothers, Gregory (who died of cancer in 2003) and Maurice, came along a generation later in New York and studied with Harlem-born Henry Le-Tang, they admired and were inspired by Philly tap.

F. Randolph (Randy) Swartz, director of Dance Affiliates, which produces the Annual Dance Celebration series at Penn's Annenberg Center, has mounted tap shows over the years highlighting styles of dance percussion around the world, and tonight unveils Thank You Gregory: A Tribute to the Legends of Tap.

"This show really came about because of how Gregory Hines brought the tap community together," Swartz said. "There was always that issue, whether the origins of tap were Irish or rooted in African American slave culture. It was a crossover art form and you never saw it in mixed company. Years ago tappers were territorial - and Gregory broke that.

"He did more than just bring people together in a common community; he said 'everybody who owns a pair of tap shoes belongs to my family.' He went to seminars, workshops, festivals, and that helped float the boat so that there could be a Savion Glover or a Jason Samuels Smith," who will be featured along with Gregory's older brother, Maurice. The show will tour nationally through 2011.

At 66, Maurice Hines is still enjoying a full career, hoofing and choreographing from BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, to a new production of Sophisticated Ladies in New York, to a work with a Paris ballet company. He spoke by phone from New York about the long stage life tappers enjoy, the Hines brothers' careers, and the great young dancer Samuels Smith, 29, who costars with him in Thank You Gregory.

"Well, Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers danced well into their 70s," he said. "Ann Reinking [60 in November] is still dancing. The movement keeps us in shape. I think we stay healthy longer because of the art form."

Back in the day, there were no tap classes, he said - "You learned from each other. I like the camaraderie of tappers, the sharing of steps. Especially when Gregory and I started at the Apollo, we watched people like Coles and the Nicholas Brothers teach each other, and we learned too."

There was one step he found difficult to pick up on. "The syncopation of it - I just couldn't get it. Henry [LeTang, his mentor] made me do it over and over again. So now I do it all the time."

"Henry never said do [the steps] Shuffle Off to Buffalo or Over the Top, he just sang the rhythm and did it for us. Then we did it. Later when we'd be rehearsing with someone else, they'd name a step for us to do and we wouldn't know what they were talking about."

He recalled dancing the Trading Eights scene (hoofers compete by trading eight-bar steps) with Gregory and Le-Tang playing the piano in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club. "It was so spontaneous, Francis thought it was the highlight of the movie."

For the show here, he'll do a soft-shoe, "the number I did at Gregory's memorial, and the 11 o'clock number from Sophisticated Ladies."

He added, "I'm so looking forward to returning to Philadelphia. I started there in Eubie! and I am thrilled they are celebrating my brother."

He's also looking forward to being on the same bill with Samuels Smith. "He is spectacular; he has everything going for him - real charisma. We never really worked together, but I knew his father. And I hear he's going to get the Dance Magazine Award."

In fact, another great tap dancer, Dianne Walker (Lady Di), will present the annual Dance Magazine Award to Samuels Smith in November in New York. The magazine's editor, Wendy Perron, said, "Jason has a style of his own. He's hard hitting and at the same time highly inventive. Plus, he's done a lot for the tap community, and has mentored a number of younger tappers."

Swartz says they've been putting the show together for about a year, and are bringing in the best of the young generation of tappers as well as the top choreographers from around the country. Tony Waag, head of Tap City in New York, and Ann Marie De Angelo, a former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet turned producer/director, are directing, and Brenda Bufalino, founder of the American Tap Dance Foundation, is choreographing some work, as is Samuels Smith, who worked with Gregory Hines.

Swartz is asking every tapper who attends Thank You Gregory - which launches Dance Celebration's 2009-10 season - to bring tap shoes and go up onstage at the end of the show to dance the classic Shim Sham Shimmy. So practice your crossovers and get those shoulders working.