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Just Guess What’s on Tap for Hines : The Performer Is Back on His Feet for a Dance Tour

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He may be featured in one of the most popular movies of the moment, “Waiting to Exhale,” and be preparing for roles in two upcoming high-profile films, but Gregory Hines defines himself this way: “I think of myself as a tap dancer, and everything I do comes from that.”

His skill and individuality as a tap dancer are well known to anyone who has seen his performances in such films as “White Nights,” “Tap” and “The Cotton Club,” or on Broadway in shows including “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” for which he won the 1992 Tony Award for best actor in a musical. Adding his own contemporary edge to the long tradition of tap, Hines can dig into the floor with percussive ferocity one moment and caress it teasingly the next, shifting effortlessly through myriad rhythmic variations.

Friday and Saturday nights, those skills will be on view when Hines takes the stage with a one-man show (plus six musicians and two backup singers) at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. At his publicist’s office just before new year’s, Hines talked about the show, his movie career and the current vitality of tap dancing. He looked relaxed and far younger than his age (he turns 50 next month), occasionally unfolding his lanky frame to clarify a point about rhythm or demonstrate a particular tap move.

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‘I do this act because I enjoy going around the country and performing for live audiences. My roots in show business come from the live stage; that’s what my brother and I did when we were kids, and that’s where I belong,” he observed. “I come out and I sing, dance and talk. My style is part choreography, part improvisation, but I don’t believe in complete improvisation. It’s all ‘improvography,’ with the musicians and I responding to each other. This gives me a chance to show people the possibilities of tap dancing. At its heart, tap is mathematics, and there are endless possibilities.”

Hines said he has been able to extend those possibilities by developing a special portable floor--"my instrument.” “I had a real problem with volume and surface, so I started carrying around different microphones, trying different formulas until we came up with this floor. It’s white oak, in four sections, and it has pickups built into it. I can be subtle [because] I can really hear what I’m doing.”

Hines wasn’t exaggerating when he said he started as a kid; he has been tap dancing for 47 years, he noted proudly. He and his brother Maurice, who learned to dance in New York with Henry LeTang, started performing as the Hines Kids, and then, as teenagers, they combined with their father, Maurice Sr., a drummer, as the popular act Hines, Hines and Dad. In the early 1970s, after that intensely professional childhood and adolescence, Gregory left dancing behind for a while. For eight years, he said, “I didn’t own a pair of tap shoes.”

Hines came west, lived in Venice and played guitar in a jazz-rock band. “I never thought I would get back into tap dancing,” he emphasized. “But every now and then, some music would be on and I’d dance--in my bare feet. Then in 1978, I came back to New York and got a job in ‘The Last Minstrel Show,’ because they knew I could tap dance.” “Minstrel Show” closed quickly, but Hines’ next role was singing and dancing in the hit “Eubie!”

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“Once I got back into it, it was like meeting an old lover after years of not seeing each other and having it be great again.”

Hines is especially excited about developments in tap dancing. “Right now,” he said with satisfaction, “there’s what I feel is a new day in tap dancing.”

A major reason for Hines’ enthusiasm is Savion Glover, the 22-year-old tap phenom who has been performing on Broadway for more than a decade. In the original production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Glover played the young Jelly Roll Morton and created fireworks with Hines nightly in a fierce, rapid-fire duet. This fall, Glover opened in the wildly successful “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” which he choreographed, stars in and co-conceived, and which tells the history of tap from slave days to the present.

“Savion is redefining the art of tap dancing,” Hines stated matter-of-factly, still impressed by the young tapper’s moves on the recent Kennedy Center Honors telecast. “What he’s doing is really new, but at the same time I look at him dance, and I see all the other dancers who had an impact on him. Now I’m getting my wisdom from older guys and also from the younger ones!”

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When he’s not working on new tap steps, Hines is busy with a number of film projects. He calls “Waiting to Exhale” “a love note to women” and a learning experience for men. “For once, the men are on the periphery and the focus is on the women; we see how things impact on their lives and their friendships,” said Hines, whose laid-back, guy-next-door character is one of the few sympathetic males in the film.

He will soon start filming “The Preacher’s Wife,” in which he co-stars with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, and “Trigger Happy,” co-starring Jeff Goldblum and Gabriel Byrne. Additionally, “Bleeding Hearts,” his directing debut, has a distributor and is scheduled for release in the coming months, as is “The Ox and the Eye,” in which he co-stars with Vincent D’Onofrio (and had a chance to experience white-water rafting “for the first and last time”).

Wherever the film projects take him, his tap shoes will probably go along. For one thing, he finds that one concession to the passing years is that he needs to dance more regularly now to stay sharp. Moreover, he said, “I like it more now. I’m always trying to come up with new steps. That’s what tap dancing is--it’s a great search.

“As I’ve grown older, I feel I’ve become more relaxed and confident. I’ve been able to remain that way because I’ve kept dancing. I’m going to do it until I can’t!”

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* Gregory Hines dances at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, Friday and Saturday, at 8 p.m. $25-$40. (800) 300-4345 or (310) 916-8510.


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