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Happy Birthday, Gregory Hines, Tap Dancer, Choreographer and Actor

February 14, 2011
by Rachel Balik
He was an actor, singer and a writer, but first and foremost, Gregory Hines was a dancer. Hines both popularized the art form of tap dance and stayed faithful to its unique history. A dancer for 54 of his 57 years, Hines had a unique ability to combine the aural and the visual, and is considered one of tap dancing’s greatest stars to date.

Gregory Hines’ Early Days

Gregory Oliver Hines was born February 14, 1946, in New York City. He began tap dancing before he turned 3. A mere two years later, he turned professional, dancing with his brother Maurice as part of the Hines Kids, and later, the Hines Brothers. Although they did have a teacher/choreographer in New York, Hines learned far more about dancing from the other performers he met backstage and onstage while performing.

The two brothers made frequent appearances at the Apollo Theater and were exposed to some of the greatest performers of their time. Later, their father joined the group as a drummer and the three traveled together until Gregory Hines decided that he’d had too much of the traveling life.

Hines moved to California and started the band Severance, a jazz-rock band in which he served as singer, guitarist and songwriter. Although Encyclopedia Britannica biography a difficult relationship with his brother as the reason he left New York, when his band dissolved, the rift was not permanent. By the late '70s, Hines was ready to go back East.

Hines’ Dancing and Acting Career

In 1978, Hines reunited with his brother in the musical “Eubie!” about famed ragtime composer Eubie Blake. The production earned Hines a Tony Award nomination and renewed the public interests in tap dance. Hines would star in four Broadway shows during his career, picking up a Tony Award nomination for best actor each time. He finally won the award in 1993 for “Jelly’s Last Jam.” He also shared a Tony Award nomination for the show’s choreography, but didn’t win.

Hines also had a robust film career, which began with an appearance in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part I.”

He starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” (1984), which examined the disquieting racial complexities of the Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s and 30s. The film itself became quite expensive and controversial, AllMovieusic.com writes, and was unable to do well enough at box offices to justify the drama that occurred behind the scenes of its production.

In “White Nights” (1985), he joined ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov to tell a tale of two rebel dancers struggling to escape the hold of the Soviet government in Moscow. The movie helped popularize both dance mediums. The 1989 movie “Tap” featured Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as other famed dancers.

Hines also appeared on TV shows such as “Will and Grace” and “Lost at Home.” During the late 1990s, he had his own sitcom, “The Gregory Hines Show” about a single father learning to date again alongside his 12-year-old son.

Hines’ love of dancing reigned supreme, however, and one of his other major achievements was a successful campaign to Congress to officially designate May 25, 1989, as National Tap Dancing Day. Congress declared tap dancing a “uniquely” American art form and selected the birthday of tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (whom Hines later portrayed in a 2001 TV special) to commemorate tap. The resolution also notes Robinson’s contributions to breaking racial barriers.

The Rest of the Story

Hines continued to work almost up until his death from cancer on Aug. 9, 2003. The New York Times recounted his determination to seek roles originally written for white actors, believing that they generally offered greater breadth. Not only did he act and dance, but Hines also wrote and directed two films, “Bleeding Hearts” and “Red Sneakers.”

He is remembered as one of the greatest dancers of all time, and his legacy lives on at the New York Public Library’s Gregory Hines Collection Of American Tap Dance. The collection includes film, video, photographs and manuscripts chronicling the history of American tap dance.

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