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Tuesday, August 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregory Hines: Consummate hoofer made tap cool again

Seattle Times theater critic

While taking in the sad, surprising news that Gregory Hines died of cancer last Saturday, at age 57, several vivid images of the entertainer sprang to mind.

One was the thrilling sight of tapper Hines and ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, two of the finest dancers of their generation, revving up a white-hot duet in the 1985 film "White Nights."

Another: Hines giving a gripping, Tony Award-winning portrayal of bedeviled bluesman Jelly Roll Morton, in the hit 1992 Broadway musical "Jelly's Last Jam."

And there was the still-fresh memory of Hines on a visit to a Seattle dance studio last year, where he demonstrated steps and offered hugs and encouragement to a crowd of young tappers clearly awed by his presence.

Such images testify to Hines' multifaceted appeal as a film actor, a Broadway powerhouse, a dedicated teacher and mentor. But they don't tell the full story of his cultural role.

In the big picture, Hines served as a graceful bridge from the kind of virtuoso African-American tap dance that had flourished in vaudeville and the Big Band era, to today's exciting crop of hip-hop-era hoofers, led by the brilliant Savion Glover (a Hines protégé).

In fact, it's not overstating the case to say that in the 1980s, the lean, heavy-lidded Hines made tap-dancing cool again. And that without him (and, to a lesser degree, his hoofer brother Maurice Hines), tapping might have faded out as a dynamic, contemporary idiom, going the way of the Charleston and the Boogaloo.

How did Hines help invigorate an art form all but written off in the 1970s as hokey and anachronistic? Partly through a deft synthesis of various tap traditions.

A professional dancer from the time he was 5, Hines rubbed elbows with and learned at the knees of elder-statesmen jazz hoofers he met while touring with brother Maurice and later with their father Maurice Sr.

From such suave tap godfathers as Bunny Briggs, the Nicholas Brothers and Sandman Sims, Hines learned an impeccable rhythmic sense, a close-to-the-floor flair for intricate heel-sole syncopation and a dance posture that kept his upper body lithe and arms loose.

Hines also came under the wing of Sammy Davis Jr., the commanding, full-service entertainer who eventually co-starred with him in the movie "Tap."

From Davis, Hines found support to develop as a singer and actor as well as a hoofer. And from observing Gene Kelly's easygoing screen charm and manliness, he found validation for his own engagingly unpretentious stage persona.

Like many of his peers, Hines "dropped out" for a while in his 20s and rejected mainstream showbiz. But when he came roaring back (in the Broadway revues "Eubie!" and "Sophisticated Ladies"), he brought a verve and spontaneity to tap that drew immediate critical respect.

From then on Hines took every opportunity to promote tap as a viable dance genre, past and present. His performance as a Jazz Age hoofer was the best thing about Francis Ford Coppola's clunky movie "The Cotton Club." He hosted an acclaimed "Tap Dance in America" special for PBS in 1989. And he fought to get a 2001 film biography of tap great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson made. (Hines' lead performance in "Bojangles" earned him an Emmy nomination.)

His visit to a Seattle dance school last year, while here to headline a Paramount Theatre show, was another facet of Hines' advocacy. He often took part in dance-related charitable and educational activities. And his delight in spurring on young dancers was genuine.

Though many know Hines by his "straight" appearances on TV ("The Gregory Hines Show" and "Will & Grace") and films ("Waiting to Exhale," "The Preacher's Wife"), dancing was always his passion.

That passion was snuffed out far too early. According to news reports, Hines' illness and death came as a shock to many of his friends and colleagues. Last year, in an interview with The Seattle Times, Hines said he was looking forward to many more years of hoofing.

"I'm going to tap until I can't," Hines declared. "I'll be so old, all I can do is walk out from the wings to stage center. But I'll be there."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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