A Star Up Close
Gregory Hines, probably the most famous and beloved tap dancer in the final decades of the twentieth century, performed at Jacob’s Pillow only once, for a gala in 1996. But that performance was special, and in ways that reveal much about his singular gifts.
Alone among the hoofers of his generation, Hines was a star on Broadway and in the movies, too. Alongside his older brother, Maurice, he had grown up as a child entertainer in 1960s, learning how to tap—and how to entertain—the old-fashioned way, by watching older performers from the wings and getting coached backstage or in the alley behind the theater. The Hines Brothers played the Catskills, Las Vegas, and Miami, mixing in more singing and comedy as tap went out of style.
At 27, Gregory rebelled, dropping out for the beach lifestyle of Southern California. But when he returned to tap and New York in 1978, he connected with a broad public as no tap dancer had for decades. In the Broadway shows Eubie! (1979), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), and Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), and in the Hollywood films The Cotton Club (1984) and White Nights (1985), among others, Hines managed to become a household name without losing his primary identification as a tap dancer.
But what the footage of the 1996 Pillow gala captures—and this makes it rare—is Hines as a live performer, playing no character other than himself. His informal sartorial style had been established for at least a decade: slacks, a T-shirt tight enough to show off his muscled torso, an earring dangling from one ear. His pressure-lowering prop was a plastic bottle of water, an accessory that you might bring to a workout.
His kind of workout required tap shoes. Starting at first without the band, he hit much harder than had the dancers who preceded him in the Gala—Dianne Walker and the august Jimmy Slyde. Slamming his shoes against floor like someone demanding entrance, he could seem to be trying to turn up the volume as far as it would go.
Hines was testing the instrument beneath his feet, like a pianist running fingers up and down the keyboard, feeling out tuning and attack. At the same time, he was trying out rhythms, patterns. Selecting from his stock of steps or alighting on a new idea, he played with it, repeated it, varied it, poked at it from different angles, slapped it around. In his irregular starts and stops, you could sense a musical mind thinking. His habit of leaning into a stamp was emblematic: his knees and torso compressing, squeezing the juice of the sound; his head cocked, listening.
This loose, exploratory way with improvisation was a key part of Hines’s contribution to tap. So was his up-to-date physicality and an approach to rhythm that wasn’t afraid of rock or funk or R&B. Later in the gala performance, when he brings in the band, he stops to correct the drummer, who keeps substituting swing for the solid backbeat Hines has requested.
Yet Hines’s achievement, his distinctive magic, was in getting an audience to accept this mode of improvisation as a form of conversation, at once genuine and of a piece with his showman’s banter. His tapping was interspersed with pauses—to acknowledge applause and to tell jokes. The most telling joke: saying “I’ve been working on this for a month,” when everyone could detect how much he was making up on the spot. Everyone laughed in complicity, sharing the secret that he had not prepared much. And that secret was delightful because—just as obviously, if in a less obvious sense—he had been preparing. What Hines offered was not a routine but himself.
That was the achievement behind the achievement. When Hines had quit tap as a young man, he had wanted to find himself. “I wanted to be real,” he recalled, and he didn’t feel real while performing. “My family wanted me to smile,” he said. “I never wanted to smile.” For a young African-American tap dancer, smiling was connected with shame, with a sense of servility stemming from tap’s roots in slavery and blackface minstrelsy. But when he returned to tap, he discovered how to smile uningratiatingly, without losing his cool.
In an interview a few days after the Gala, Dianne Walker would talk of the revelation of seeing Hines on The Tonight Show in the early eighties, just shuffling around, telling a story without music, expressing without words what he was feeling, having just learned that his son had been born. Walker said that watching Hines be like that taught her about being honest through tap.
Hines was a charmer. He could work an audience as well as he could work a floor. Right after wowing the folks with a turbo passage, he could mock his own virtuosity with body language and rhythm, making the crowd giggle just by slowing down. But his smoothness had sharp edges, too. At the Gala, his impression of “Mike” Baryshnikov (with whom he had starred in White Nights) found humor in a painful struggle to turn out his legs, but underneath the comedy was a populist assault on ballet’s high status. This was connected to his jokey digression about being in a “thea-tah,” and his quip about having been a modern dancer in a previous life. Hines was very sensitive about tap’s place in hierarchies of taste and class; slights against tap inevitably carried a racial tinge. When he turned to the audience, suddenly grave, and asserted the Pillow “could be a place for tap dancers,” the hurt underlying the seriousness was no joke.
His final gag—before bringing on Slyde and Walker for a tapped confab among old friends, passing around the water bottle and holding hands for a traditional Shim Sham—was at his own expense. It was about his protégé, Savion Glover, whose choreography for the breakthrough Broadway show Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk had just won a Tony Award. On other occasions, Hines had joked about his mixed feelings while watching Glover do a Hines signature step at a speed Hines could never approach. At the Gala, Hines proposed doing one of Glover’s steps at Glover’s speed. He prepared—only to be delayed by Glover’s mother, Yvette, who shouted out, “You can do it, baby,” from the audience. After stopping for the laugh, Hines tried a second time: pausing for a moment, unmoving, before raising his head to ask, “Would you like to see that again?”
The step so fast it couldn’t be seen stood for ways in which Glover was surpassing his mentor. But the bit itself, along with the rest of Hines’s performance, showed how Hines could not be eclipsed. He was one of a kind, and when he died from cancer, in 2003, at age 57, he left a very large hole.