There is perhaps nothing so mysterious in show biz as the sound of tapping feet, or, in one of its many disguises, the (“gimme that”) old soft shoe, or the slide, it makes hardly any sound. What all forms of tap dancing do is to make the audience happy, for reasons that are not that easy to figure out. In performance terms, it is a holy mystery.
The other mystery besides its giddy, happiness-inducing quality—who knows, if Napoleon had seen a tap dance before making up his mind to go to Moscow, he might never have went—is that to the eye of the beholder, the whole thing looks as easy as selling chocolate.
Except that it isn’t.
“Nothing about it is easy,” said Maurice Hines, the celebrated Broadway performer, dancer, singer and legend of tap, in a recent interview. “It’s supposed to look easy. That’s part of the trick, but it sure isn’t easy, I can tell you that. It’s not work, in the sense that you gotta love tapping if you’re going to be a tap dancer, but it’s hard work in the practice, the doing it right, and just about everything it can do to body, muscle and bones, when those taps hit the floor, you feel it practically all the way to your teeth.”
If anybody ought to know about tap, it’s Hines who’s spent his life in show biz and tap. So, now he’s at Arena Stage, back in Washington, a town he loves, doing “Maurice Hines is Tappin Thru Life,” now through Dec. 29 at the Kreeger Theater.
Here’s a tip about tap: be prepared to warm up with warm feelings, maybe an itch to want do a little tapping underneath your chair yourself. Guaranteed is that for a while you will absolutely not think about Obamacare or the Redskins.
“Yeah, I think for a while there, it was something of a lost art, in terms of people studying how to do it, people teaching it, or tap numbers not being part of big Broadway musicals so much,” Hines said. But Hines, who has taught master classes in tap to folks and is always on the look out for the next generation of tap dancers doesn’t just dance—he teaches. In his case, those that teach, teach because they do it and have done for all of their lives.
The show, directed by Jeff Calhoun, is also a tribute to his kid brother Gregory, his charismatic partner in dance, star singer and actor who died of cancer ten years ago. “My little brother,” he said. “When we were little kids in growing up in Harlem, there was a story about us already, and we didn’t even know how to dance. Mom would take us out, and people would stare at us. And somebody would ask, what are they doing. And somebody else would say, “Look at them walk.”
“It’s about my life in tap, about Gregory, about our musical influences, the people whose music I listened to all my life, like Ella—Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Judy Garland. These are the folks who were an inspiration to me. Watching them on stage, in a theater, in a club, you got the sense of how great it is to be a performer. They did everything with class.
That’s a sense you get about Hines, too, if you saw him in the Arena Stage as Nathan Detroit a number of years ago (Sinatra did the movie version), if you saw his work in “Sophisticated Ladies,” the Duke Ellington show which was an Arena production at the Lincoln Theater a few years back, you get a good sense of him. You notice not only how light he is on his feet, you notice how he gets from here to there, still and all, just like a kid, although with style and elegance and something unforgettable, like a millionaire’s after shave lingering in the room. And if you saw him with his brother in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Cotton Club”—they played tap dancing brothers—you got a sense of them together.
“Tap’s been not just a part of my life, it’s a part of the country’s life,” he said. “You go back to Mister Bojangles, to the Nicholas Brothers, that’s a part of our history.”
Hines is joined by the Manzari brothers, John and Leo, a pair of gifted dancers he discovered while casting “Sophisticated Ladies,” along with the Heimowitz Brothers, Sam and Max, students at Knock on Wood Tap Studio, who started dancing about the time that Gregory and Maurice did.
“Like everything else, tap changes, life changes,” Hines said. “Savion Glover just got people all excited all over again with his form of more contemporary tap dancing.” Other things have kept the mystery real—the young people’s film “Happy Feet,” and 1989’s “Tap,” which starred Gregory Hines.
“Tap” is a tapestry, whose ingredients are words and moves, song and dance, the kind that re-arranged our dreams and parts of the American lexicon, the naming of the moves is like a long poem’s roster of moves and ways of moving around a stage or a living room, down the street, in a tux, or jeans, on a street corner. Listen to the music, watch the move: the pullback, flap heel, running flap, wings, the shim sham shimmy, the paddle roll, the paradiddle, stomp, brushes, scuffs, spanks, riffs, the single and double toe punch, hell click, hot steps, over-the-tops, New Yorkers, Shiggy Bops, chugs, and cramp roll turns. The hard tappers see themselves as musicians, making music.
“As far as I’m concerned, my brother was the greatest tap dancer that ever lived,” Maurice Hines said.
“I miss him, and I think of him every day,” Hines said. “I used to call him up wherever we might happen to be. I still find myself starting to do it at times. So, this is my tribute to him. To all the tap dancers, but to my kid brother, especially.”
At the Kreeger, there will be songs and rhythm, the sound of feet hitting the floor, the almost-sound of a slide and glide, the old soft shoe, maybe a shaggy bop, a paradiddle.
Guaranteed to make you happy.