Ella Crowsley highlights a pioneer of American dance
My muse is… Gregory Hines, an American tap dancer, actor and choreographer.
He is… a captivating performer and was a major figure in the revitalisation of tap dancing in the late 1900s. When Hines was just six years old, he performed with his older brother at the Apollo Theatre in New York. Just two years later, he made his debut on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954. Throughout his career, Hines starred in more than forty films and received multiple accolades, including a Daytime Emmy and a Tony, as well as nominations for four Primetime Emmy Awards. Hines also performed as the lead singer and musician in a rock band called Severance, based in L.A.
I first learned about him when… I read an article revelling about his advocating for tap in America. Since then I’ve been unable to stop watching his performances and learning more about the incredible work he’s done! He successfully petitioned the creation of ‘National Tap Dance Day’ in May 1989, which is now celebrated in over 40 states in the US, as well as other nations across the world.
I am obsessed because… Hines pioneered a new style of tap dancing. He was an avid improviser of steps and rhythms, using his feet as tools to experiment with interesting rhythms and work with the music backing him up. Critics described his tap as like that of a drummer, coming up with rhythms as he went. Although he inherited the traditions of the typical black rhythmic tap that he’d been taught as a child, he promoted a new rhythmic tap, purposely pushing through the tempos and experimenting with forms in jazz and postmodern music. Hines also pursued a career in acting, featuring in The Cotton Club and the 1986 buddy cop film Running Scared with Billy Crystal. Interestingly, in an interview in 1987, Hines said that he often looked for roles written for white actors, ‘preferring their greater scope and dynamics’. This once again shows his pioneering personality and the steps he took to push not only his own career forwards, but also inspire those following in his footsteps.
My favorite work by him is… Tap (1989). Tap is a dance drama film written and directed by Nick Castle. Hines stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr., playing Max Washington, a talented tap dancer who has just been released from prison after serving time for burglary. The story depicts the decline of tap dancing in the 1950s, being replaced by rock. The role challenges Hines both as a tap dancer, who had experienced this dwindling genre in his own life, as well as his ability as an actor. For this reason, the film is a must-watch!
The work by him you have to check out is…. Preacher’s Wife (1996). In this incredible American comedy, Hines stars opposite Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B.Vance. It was a remake of the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife and was nominated for Oscars for Best Music and Original Musical. Once again, Hines’ multiple talents are showcased brilliantly!