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The Man in the Dancing Shoes

Gregory Hines scores big on Broadway with Jelly's Last Jam.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 1)

Finally, it did, "One of the things about acting," Hines says, "is that one has to get in touch with one's own self, one's own emotions and experiences, with anything that will help. We all have a darker side, but we push that side back. But once I started to get inside Jelly, to try to understand him, to try to live in that character, I was able to get in touch with aspects of my own personality and my own history that I couldn't deny, and that were very valuable to me.

"I come from a background where people on my mother's side of the family are very light-skinned and the people on my father's side are dark-skinned," he says. "And when my mother married my father, my mother's father refused to come to the wedding. He didn't want her to marry a dark-skinned African-American. I loved them all, but as I grew up I could see and feel a certain subtle superiority that the lighter-skinned African-Americans felt toward the darker ones. And the more I read about Jelly, the more I could understand."

Now, Hines says, he loves to say those lines. "I've been hissed on stage by the audience because of some of the things Jelly says," Hines recalls. "And it makes me feel good. Because I've always played nice guys. It was time for a change."

Hines started playing nice guys at an early age. He was born in New York City, and spent his younger days with his family on West 150th Street in Harlem, in an area known as Sugar Hill, where many black entertainers resided. His older brother, Maurice, began taking tap lessons at age 4. Gregory was eager to follow in his brother's dance steps, and soon joined in.

"I don't think we were given tap lessons because my parents thought we were going to become professional dancers," Hines says. "It was just like giving kids piano lessons. But we began to develop, and we began to feel it might be a career."

Gregory and Maurice's parents next sent them for lessons to Henry LeTang, the world-renowned tap teacher. "He gave us an act," Gregory Hines says. "That was really the beginning."

The act, called the Hines Kids, began when Gregory was six. He and his brother danced at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. They made their first Broadway appearance in 1954, in small roles--Maurice was a newsboy and Gregory a shoeshine boy--in the musical The Girl in Pink Tights. As they became teenagers, the name of the act was changed to the Hines Brothers. And later, after their father, Maurice Hines Sr., joined them as a drummer, they called themselves the Hines, Hines and Dad. They appeared on television on the The Ed Sullivan Show and often on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and performed internationally.

But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hines says, "Tap had fallen out of fashion and the act split up." (The breakup, and earlier disputes, drove a wedge between Gregory and his brother, one that persists despite occasional reconciliations.) There was also another split: Gregory had married in 1968, and his daughter, Daria, was born in 1970, but divorce soon followed.

Gregory moved to Venice, California, and played in a jazz-rock band, Severance. He often had little money, but, he says, those days were a crucial learning experience.

"It was a great time for me," he says, "because it was a time of great discovery. I became a hippie. I didn't do any tap dancing. In fact, from 1973 to 1978, I didn't even own a pair of tap shoes. It was the first time I was really by myself. It was the first time I was on my own. I had to learn how to take care of myself. Which I did. And it really paid off when I came back to New York and started working in the theater. Because I felt so much more self-confident. And ultimately, that's what it takes."

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