BWW Interview: Maurice Hines Is Tappin' Thru History
Maurice Hines remembers tear drops on the floor of the Henry LeTang Dance Studio as he and his brother, Gregory, were learning a tap routine. He was around 7 or 8. Gregory was a couple of years younger, but a fast study.
"Henry was giving us a step," Maurice, 72, recalled. "Gregory got it quicker but I remembered it longer. And I remember my tears on the floor." Maurice was so determined to learn the moves he cried as his feet stumbled, then flew. He never stopped tapping.
That determined work ethic and love of tap has led to Hines' nostalgic show, TAPPIN' THRU LIFE, which chronicles his illustrious career in show business. The genesis of the autobiographical show was an article about tap that failed to mention his brother, who died in 2003.
As a result of correcting that omission, Hines has created a charismatic confection that incorporates vintage photos, bittersweet memories, enthusiastic tap dancing and a mega-talented all-female band-Sherrie Maricle and The Diva Jazz Orchestra.
The Hines siblings appeared at Harlem's Apollo, performed on Broadway and toured as the opening act for Las Vegas headliners that included Lionel Hampton and Gypsy Rose Lee. Their mother warned them not to watch the stripper's routine. "We weren't allowed to watch her strip but we snuck away on the left side of the stage and watched her anyway," Maurice said. "She was always nice to us."
When his jazz drummer father joined the duo, they were renamed Hines, Hines and Dad.
They played to sell-out crowds in New York, Las Vegas and throughout Europe after catching the eye of Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland and Tallulah Bankhead among other show biz royalty. They performed in movies and television, appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 35 times.
Hines has mined not only his memories for this production, he's also lifted and enlarged black and white photos from family scrapbooks. They are projected on portable panels flanking the stage.
Hines taps and glides effortlessly throughout the 90-minute intermission-less show. He slides across the stage. Then taps up and down a central staircase comprised of white platforms that reach the band.
As an adult, the prolific tapper went solo and explored theater and movies, starring as Nathan Detroit in the national touring company of Guys and Dolls. He created the hit musical Eubie!, starred in Sophisticated Ladies and made his screen debut in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club. He created the Ballet USA dance company along with Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke. Next on the horizon is a plan to open the Maurice and Gregory Hines Performing Arts Center School and Theater in Harlem.
Hines' love of ballet was fostered as a young student at the LeTang studio. "I wanted to dance like that," Hines said. "I could hoof, but Henry made me take ballet. I wanted to learn all the dance forms."
As a child learning a routine, Hines rarely practiced outside the studio. "I learned the routine and did it once or twice," Hines said. "Henry would put it together in 15 minutes. Gregory didn't like to rehearse.
"Once I learned it I got it, I always want it to look new," he said. "I always just do it, it comes from the music. Never learned counts, just did the steps," he said.
Hines learned how to use props when he and Gregory were young. "We used pogo sticks in Philadelphia," he said. "And wore Davy Crockett hats. That was big at the time," he said.
His role models include the Nicholas Brothers and Nat King Cole. "My father used to bring us to the Apollo every week," he said. "Nat was so effortless, I remember. The audience went wild for him. He was so smooth. And Belafonte had a rapport with every audience," he said.
Tap dancing has never been in decline, he said, but black tap dancers were largely ignored. "Except the Nicholas brothers," Hines said. "They went to Europe and Jamaica."
Directed by Jeff Calhoun with scenic design by Tobin Ost, lighting design by Michael Gilliam, sound design by Michael Hahn, production design by Darrel Maloney and costume design by T. Tyler Stumpf, the production features another brother act-John and Leo Manzari. They add a youthful spin to Hines' nostalgia.
He discovered the duo while doing Sophisticated Ladies. "I taught a jazz hip-hop class at the Duke Ellington School," he said. "I see these dancing curls and thought, 'That's a tall girl back there,'" he said. "That turned out to be Leo," he joked.
"They auditioned for me, I loved them and put them in the show," Hines said. "They are very well-mannered and respectful," he said. Another duo is a sister act, the teenaged Devin and Julia Ruth, whose ponytails keep time like a metronome.
Hines credits the tap star Savion Glover with bringing tap to a younger generation. Glover is choreographing the coming vaudeville musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921. "Savion took it to the youth. A lot of people don't realize there are all different styles of tap-Savion is the top of the line in rhythm. I like all styles," he said. "I like the kind we do the best. It's very difficult and can be tapped at any tempo. Bojangles tapped on his toes, Bubbles on his heels," He said of the legendary tap dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John Bubbles.
The charismatic Hines inherited his ease with an audience from his mother. "Greg and I would walk down the street and people would run out to look at us like we were in a parade," he said. "Dad said, 'You were cute kids and people just wanted to look at the zing.'"
Hines, a self-proclaimed "theater-animal," admits movie-making is not for him. "Too much sitting around," he said. "I remember when making The Cotton Club I had an early call at 5:30 and wasn't called until 8:30 that night. Gregory loved it."
Advice to tap wannabees? "Learn your craft," Hines said. "Pay your dues, have yourself a career and don't call yourself an artist."
Hines follows his mother's directive when making an exit. "Make sure the audience leaves saying, 'Wow! I had a great time, baby!'"
TAPIN' THRU LIFE is playing at the New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter-Keddy