Everyone I know who met Gregory Hines has a story. They remember their experiences of what he said to them and where they were when they first met him. They remember every detail because he had a very personable way about him. He had a way of making everyone feel as though they mattered.
I first met Gregory in 1988, when I was dancing with Brenda Bufalino’s American Tap Dance Orchestra. We were showcasing in a small 42nd Street space and, while we were dancing, Gregory and Honi Coles walked in. My heart raced as two of the great masters of tap came to watch us! Afterward, Gregory shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me I was a good tap dancer, a thrilling moment for me that I’ll never forget.
When Gregory taught master classes at Woodpecker’s, home of the American Tap Dance Orchestra, he often asked me to assist him. That’s how I became familiar with his rhythms. (For young people reading, this was way before youtube!) I always loved how he could communicate what he felt through his dancing, whether it was anger, joy, pain—any range of emotions.
In 1996, I received a call from Gregory asking me if I would like to dance with him. Mark Mendonca and Cyd Glover were also going to be in the piece for a TV show presented every year called Gala for the President. He said we would be dancing at the Ford Theatre in Washington, DC, to honor President and Mrs. Bill Clinton. Naturally, I was thrilled that he would ask me. He was so casual about the whole thing, wondering if I was free on those dates. You can bet I was, without a doubt, free on those dates!
I flew out to Los Angeles to rehearse, approximately a month before the gig. We rehearsed for three weeks, about two hours a day. The atmosphere in the studio was always playful and relaxed. Gregory didn’t walk in as the choreographer; rather, we were all tap dancers working out together. He didn’t so much prepare choreography for the rehearsals, but came in with a groove in mind. He created the steps in the moment, from a tune that he liked, maybe something from the band Urban Nights or the composer Phillipe Masques. When he did create a step, he liked to play around with it, trying it in different ways, until he settled on what he thought would work best.
We ended up using a tune called “See You in July” by The Jazz Masters, again because of the groove, not necessarily the melody. During the rehearsal process, he hired a composer to use that groove and create a new melody that would work with the dance. After hearing many versions, Gregory wasn’t satisfied. With less than a week to go, before the performance, (he was still in LA), Gregory called me and asked me to meet with his composer/pianist Rick Cutler, here in New York. I showed Rick the dance, counted the bars, and he created a beautiful, open, laid-back melody, sometimes even using Gregory’s tap rhythms as backup. The music ultimately had Gregory’s funky feel to it: smooth, relaxed with some solid rock solos. Gregory loved what Rick wrote and decided to call it “Boom.” A great raconteur, Gregory used to say that word, “boom”, a lot when he told stories.
“Boom” contains a lot of turns and classic Gregory moves, such as his backward turn with his leg up in the air and his rhythmic variation on a pressed third (which is a ball–heel–heel, also called a three-beat cramp roll). He loved to repeat his patterns. I’ve never heard anyone hear rhythm like Gregory could. He often began a phrase on the two of the bar, rather than the one. He also had some “simple” steps that are very open with lots of space, but rhythmically complex. He’d take a step and put it into a triplet, move it to a double time pattern in a kind of a roll, then come out of it with something hard hitting, using it as punctuation.
During the piece, he gave all of us, including himself, a chance to solo and improvise, but overall, there was always a feeling of ensemble dancing, like he was one of us, and all four of us were part of an entire group experience. Gregory was a total non-diva, a true team player in “Boom.”
It seemed like endless waiting until we got on stage. I should have been a nervous wreck, dancing with Gregory, and on live national television for the President of the United States! But because of his relaxed manner, I wasn’t nervous at all! He was joking around with us and exuded such confidence in us, that we knew we were just going to go out there and hit! Our ensemble was tight and we blended very well, with our individual styles coming through in Gregory’s choreography. The audience interrupted the piece with applause in various parts of the four-minute dance and we could see that President and Mrs. Clinton were obviously pleased. I’ll always remember that performance as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had onstage.
Gregory didn’t choreograph that often, (as he was more of an improviser). For him to include us in this prestigious event, when he had the option to perform by himself, showed that he wanted so much for tap dance to be seen and recognized. “Boom” presented a variety of ethnic backgrounds to the country —Gregory and Cyd, African-Americans; Mark, Asian and Portuguese; and myself, a white New Englander—as well as men and women dancing together, yet not partnering, á la Fred and Ginger. At the time, it felt very modern, very new, which was always what Gregory wanted to do to keep the art form moving forward. It said so much about his dedication to and vision of tap.
I learned a lot more about his process when we were working on a segment for The Gregory Hines Show, his weekly TV series in 1998. I was his assistant choreographer and we worked a long time on patterns of steps. He kept changing them, until finally settling on a particular flow. The next day he came and told me he wasn’t going to use any of it! During that show, part of my job was to remember everything. So, when he decided not to use that pattern of steps, I didn’t focus on it. I had plenty else to remember. Then, three days later, he’d casually say, “Barbara, what was that combination we were all doing the other day?” Gregory definitely kept me on my toes and it was fabulous! The episode contained small segments of tap, which included the whole cast, not just the tap dancers. For a half hour episode, it showed a lot of tap dancing! You can see a clip on youtube : https://youtu.be/EYvrBJbykkg
Gregory Hines was generous, open minded, funny as hell, an actor and singer, but always a tap dancer first, always danced from his heart, expressing what he felt in such a genuine way that he was loved by audiences all over the world….AND is to this day, still inspiring tap dancers from all over the world. Even though he passed away too soon, he is with me every day, especially when I have my shoes on.