During tap dance’s waning popularity from the 1970s to the 1990s, Gregory Oliver Hines kept it alive with his show-stopping performances on Broadway, television and in film. A triple threat, Hines was best known for his sensational tap skills—namely his natural rhythm, creativity, elegance and speed. Throughout his career, Hines served as a tireless advocate for tap and mentor to dozens of today’s most notable hoofers.
A New York City native, Hines began tapping at age 3 alongside older brother Maurice. Soon, the two were touring as “The Hines Kids.” As a young dancer, Hines drew inspiration from watching hoofers like Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Honi Coles, Bunny Briggs and The Nicholas Brothers, who he watched perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He continued performing with Maurice into adulthood, leaving the act at 27 to form a rock band.
After a 5-year hiatus, Hines returned to dance with remarkable success, starring in the Broadway musical Eubie! and receiving his first of four Tony nominations. Over the years, Hines’ talent extended from the stage to the silver screen. Praised for his versatility and charisma, he appeared in major motion pictures like White Nights and The Cotton Club and on hit TV shows like “Will & Grace.”
Hines delved into directing, music, commercials and writing and stayed active in tap dance until his death. He died of liver cancer in 2003 at age 57.
Hines brought tap dance into the modern age with a new style that highlighted his strengths. He took steps down further into the ground and expanded on the even, square rhythmic structures of his predecessors to create new uneven rhythms.
The Cotton Club (1984): Hines reunited with his brother Maurice in a tap duet that hearkened back to Vaudeville class acts like The Nicholas Brothers. Decked out in tuxedos at the famed Harlem night club, the brothers perform a flashy call-and-response tap challenge before coming together for a series of turns, drawbacks and riffs.
White Nights (1985): Hines, as an American defector in the Soviet Union, held his own, dancing alongside ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. For the first time ever, the film situated tap dance and ballet on an even playing field as both dancers challenged and complemented each other’s talents in choreography by Twyla Tharp that seamlessly blended the two styles.
Jelly’s Last Jam (1992): Hines won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as jazz composer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton. He was particularly captivating in the rousing dance sequences which he helped choreograph alongside Ted Levy. In “That’s How You Jazz,” Hines steals the show with speedy, seemingly effortless one-footed wings, pullbacks and cramp rolls, combined with a cool and carefree upper body.
The Legacy Lives On
For decades, Hines served as the link between tap’s first-generation hoofers and the stars of today. His mentorship extended to the likes of Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Jane Goldberg and Ted Levy. In 1989, Hines was the driving force behind the founding of National Tap Dance Day (May 25th), an event which continues to be celebrated by tap dance aficionados today with performances, master classes and other special events nationwide. He later helped American Tap Dance Foundation artistic director Tony Waag create the annual Tap City festival in New York City.