Tap dancing is like comedy – if you do it right, it looks easy. But it’s not. There’s metal on the bottom of that shoe and every time you hit the floor it runs right up your leg to your spine. Maurice Hines should know. He started dancing with his brother, Gregory, before the age of ten.
With Tappin’ Thru Life running through May 24 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Hines gets a chance to pay homage not just to the dance form he’s dedicated his life to but to his brother, who died of liver cancer in 2003, and his mother who moved heaven and earth to give her boys a shot at a dream. In the show, Hines looks back, and forward as well, highlighting his proteges, the Manzari Brothers (John and Leo), along with 11-year-old tap phenom, Luke Spring.
“They’re all gone,” Hines tells The Hollywood Reporter about his family. “My mother passed away and my father and, of course, Gregory.” The show, featuring as many anecdotes and songs as it does dancing, includes tributes to Lena Horne, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, but is largely a love letter to his mother, Alma Hines, a working-class Harlem woman with limited connections in show business. When she entered Maurice in dance school, Gregory was still too young. So Maurice came home and taught his little brother all the steps. Within a few years they were touring as the Hines Kids and even played the Apollo, the legendary venue they revisited in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 movie, The Cotton Club.
While his father, Maurice Hines, Sr. was a drummer who toured with his sons later in life, it was his mother who nurtured the boys’ career, enrolling them in dance studios led by tap legends like Honi Coles, Buster Brown and Henry Le Tang.
At 71, Hines still moves with style and sophistication but leaves some of the heavy lifting to the Manzari brothers whom he discovered in a dance class. “I had discovered Savion Glover but I knew I was the wrong mentor for him. I knew Gregory would be the right one so I gave him to Gregory and Gregory said one day you’re going to find those dancers that can tap like us,” recalls Hines who was teaching at the Duke Ellington School in Washington, D.C. when he came across the pair.
“Do you tap?” he asked them. “John, the one who’s a little full of himself says, ‘Yeah we can tap’. I said, ‘I’ll let you know if you can tap. You don’t tell me if you can tap, I’ll tell you’. I looked up and could see my brother smiling.”
It was a big break for the Manzaris and it reminded Hines of his own big break back when he was 11, auditioning for Agnes de Mille for her Broadway production The Girl in Pink Tights. There was only a part for one kid and de Mille chose Maurice, but Alma Hines told her the boys were a set that couldn’t be broken up. So de Mille laid down a challenge – if Gregory, who was 8-years-old at the time, could learn a routine in twenty minutes, she would take them both.
Their careers then blossomed as they went from being called the Hines Kids to the Hines Brothers. When they started working with people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin, their father told them to shut up and listen. One invaluable lesson came from Judy Garland who taught them how to get a curtain call.
“She had a curtain guy with her,” explains Hines. “She knew exactly when the applause was going down and it would come back up. And she’d gesture to the curtain guy and the curtain would go up and she’d walk on the stage as if she was surprised they were still applauding. She would come out and look at them like, For me? You really like me?”
But their mother told them to avoid such gimmicks and always give it their all. “The one thing my mother always said about the audience,” smiles Hines. “They gotta say, I had a good time, baby, I had a good time!”