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A Great Soul of Tap

The essence of a live Gregory Hines performance was not his rich, sensuous baritone, his palpable charm or even his percussive, hard-driving tap improvisations. It was that moment when he turned up the house lights, looked out, and told people to take out their tap shoes, come up onstage and “show me what you got.”

And up they came — whether the gig was a Bakersfield arena or a glitzy performing-arts center. They’d been waiting to pull tap shoes out of purses and from under overcoats, whether they were sitting in $5 rows or $500 seats. Up they came like invited friends and equals — white-haired dames ready for walkers who’d really been something once, 5-year-olds with two lessons under their belts and young studs determined to take him down, to knock the king off the hill.

Cancer took down Gregory Hines last weekend at age 57, just months after local concerts where he displayed his range of skills as well as his trademark virtuosity and stamina.

The call-up portion of the show was essential Hines — welcoming, inclusive, bridging the gap between generations and talents and styles. Sometimes he put the studs in their place — forcefully but also graciously and inspirationally. Sometimes he pretended to collapse in grief or stalk off the stage in mock dismay.

“He was always interested in what you had to show him, and he’d be right up there saying, ‘I like that,’ no matter what level or the complexity of the step,” recalls Paula Broussard, a writer who knew Hines for years. “And he was always interested in sharing.”

Hines became the biggest mainstream star who tapped since Gene Kelly or Sammy Davis Jr. As a boy, Hines idolized Davis — who’d been a child tap star of an earlier era — and tried to dance and even look like him. Hines turned pro at 5, dancing with his older brother Maurice; often their musician father would join them on drums.

“They were exciting,” remembers Leonard Reed, a 96-year-old tap impresario. Reed produced shows at New York City’s famed Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, where the black tap masters tried to outdo each other in friendly competition on and off stage. “Gregory used to be at the Apollo every week watching somebody,” says Reed.

Tap was already nearly dying out as Hines was developing his own style. “He started to bend over, stomping louder with his feet and doing more taps,” says Reed. “He got more taps out of his feet.”

In the 1989 film Tap, Hines helped re- create a flavor of the masters he used to idolize at the Apollo. The film starred Hines but also featured surviving old-schoolers Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde and even Sammy Davis Jr., who all were, to some degree, replaying their own lives. “I saw the camaraderie,” says Francine Saperstein, Hines’ longtime manager and friend. “I saw how the elder dancers were so generous with their steps and teaching. I saw Gregory carry that on. He took that torch.”

Hines served as a vital bridge to the funky, floor-smashing hoofers of today, headlined by Savion Glover, who considers Hines a mentor. It also was Hines who made the mainstream public most aware that tap was an art form of black Americans, whose stars never had a chance to achieve fame and prosperity during tap’s golden age. Hines well knew that black tappers such as John Bubbles could have been as big as Fred Astaire.

Hines helped revive tap in part because his good looks, acting skills, wit and singing voice transcended hardcore hoofing. But it took time. In his 20s, he was virtually penniless and headlining a jazz-rock band in Venice, while also working in a guitar shop and waiting tables. For about five years, he said later, he didn’t own a pair of tap shoes.

Later, as a celebrity, he’d patiently greet lines of well-wishers and autograph seekers who descended after a show. “He never said no,” says Saperstein, “he never turned anyone away.” As recently as March, Hines danced and sang through at least eight concerts, and he performed in Hawaii in April. But one friend, Carolyn Clarke, recalls how thin and tired he looked after one, a noticeable change in an artist who had always seemed so strong and ageless.

Hines had always been there, gratis, to teach master classes to all ages, genders and races. And to emcee tributes to older tappers. Who would have imagined that he would not live to be old?

Hines always said that he’d dance as long as he could. Despite rapidly failing health, he was scheduled to teach and perform at this week’s Los Angeles Tap Festival. This Saturday’s performance at the Hamilton High School auditorium is destined to become a celebration of his life. At some point, there’s bound to be a jam session — to thank Hines and show him what they’ve got.

For tap festival details, call (310) 458-7752 or log on to www.latapfest.com. Donations in Hines’ name can be made to the Center for the Study of Natural Oncology, (858) 523-9144.