Naming Gregory Hines and Harold Nicholas as his guiding mentors, Dulé Hill is one of the few artists to have navigated so successfully between tap dance and Hollywood. He made his professional debut at age 10 on the national tour of The Tap Dance Kid and performed on Broadway in Black and Blue and in Savion Glover’s Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.
Yet Hill is better known for his work on film: In 1999 he was cast as Charlie Young on Aaron Sorkin’s Emmy-winning TV drama “The West Wing,” and other screen credits include a role in ’90s teen flick She’s All That, Disney’s Holes and a 1997 TV movie Color of Justice (starring Gregory Hines). Currently, Hill stars in USA Network’s hit comedy “Psych” as Burton “Gus” Guster; the seventh season premieres February 27.
Despite his acting success, Hill passionately upholds his tap roots. In 2010, he invited Jason Samuels Smith to dance with him on “Psych.” And in 2012, Hill appeared in a short tap film, Nostalgia, that also featured Smith and Chloé Arnold. Dance Teacher spoke with Hill about the role tap has played in his career.
Dance Teacher: Do you see a relationship between your dance training and work in film?
Dulé Hill: “West Wing” was the perfect project for a tap dancer, because Aaron’s dialogue is so rhythmical. Coming from Bring in ’da Noise and working with Savion and the other tap dancers who are all about rhythm, it was ingrained in me. There are certain beats written in the script that you take or someone talks over you and you respond. That’s what I connected to. I thought, “Oh, this is rhythmic; this is a dance. Cool.” You come in, speak your lines, hand this off, go over there—it’s all choreography and I approach it like dance.
Even now, in “Psych,” comedy is all timing. And it’s not necessarily knowing the timing in your head, it’s feeling it. As a tap dancer you have to feel where you come in, feel the groove. The more you’re in your head about it, the less it translates. It’s the same thing with acting. It has to get in you and move you, like a dance.
DT: Was it challenging to switch from dance to acting?
DH: When I first came to L.A. to do She’s All That, I was having a hard time establishing myself as an actor. I had just come from Bring in ’da Noise, and the producers wanted me to do a tap dance in the musical number. But the character wasn’t established as being a tap dancer. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of me, an African American, just dancing without any back story as a tap dancer. At the same time, it was my first big film and I didn’t know what to do. I called Gregory and talked to him about it. He said, “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it. They hired you as an actor; just go and act.” I told the producers I didn’t want to dance and it worked out fine. It taught me to own my self and own my desires.
DT: Are other actors surprised to know you tap?
DH: Before “West Wing,” people would say, “Oh, you’re the tap dancer,” because Noise, Funk was the biggest thing I had done that people knew about. But it’s funny how the pendulum swings, because now, no one knows I’m a dancer. On set, guest actors are surprised because I dance between takes all the time. When I worked with Gregory Hines on Color of Justice for Showtime, he’d always call me into his trailer to show me a step he was working on. He had a piece of wood in his trailer, and since then, I’ve always kept a piece of wood and some tap shoes in my trailer.
DT: What are your future goals?
DH: Tap’s a major part of who I am. I don’t get a chance to dance as much as I would like. I’d love to find a musical or play that I could do back in New York where the character’s a tap dancer. I am particular, though, and I’m looking for the right dynamic. When I finished “West Wing,” I didn’t want to do another drama right away because I felt it might have been a letdown. The same with Noise, Funk. If I’m going to do a musical, I want it to be innovative. I want to take an audience on a journey.
I would like to see more tap on film. They’re making all these musical movies now, and I want to see tap. When Gregory passed, we lost our main torchbearer. I want people to be thinking about tap, so we don’t have to tell producers, “You’re doing a musical? Put some tap in there.” They’ll automatically do it and know the dancers they want. DT
From top: photo by Williams & Hirakawa/USA Network; by Alan Zenuk/USA Network