"Reflections on the late, great Gregory Hines" by Barbara Duffy
Everyone I know who met Gregory Hines has a story. They remember their experiences of what he said to them and where they were when they first met him. They remember every detail, because he had a very personable way about him. He had a way of making everyone feel as though they mattered.
I first met Gregory in 1988, when I was dancing with Brenda Bufalino's American Tap Dance Orchestra. We were showcasing in a small 42nd Street space and while we were dancing, Gregory and Honi Coles walked in. My heart raced as two of the great masters of tap came to watch us! Afterwards, Gregory shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me I was a good tap dancer. At the time, I never dreamed I would ever have a chance to dance beside him years later.
When Gregory taught master classes at Woodpecker's, home of the American Tap Dance Orchestra, he often asked me to assist him. That's how I became familiar with his rhythms. I always loved how he could communicate what he felt through his dancing, whether it was anger, joy, pain, any range of emotions.
I knew him about eight years, when in1997, I received a call from him asking me if I would like to dance with him. Mark Mendonca and Cyd Glover were also going to be in the piece for a TV show presented every year called, "Gala For The President". He said we would be dancing at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. to honor President and Mrs. Bill Clinton. Naturally, I was thrilled that he would ask me. He was so casual about the whole thing, wondering if I was free on those dates. If Gregory Hines called, I bet any tap dancer would become available, even if another gig existed.
I flew out to Los Angeles to rehearse, approximately a month before the gig. We rehearsed for 3 weeks, about 2 hours a day. The atmosphere in the studio was always playful and relaxed. Gregory didn't walk in as THE choreographer---rather---We were all tap dancers working out together. He didn't so much prepare choreography for the rehearsals, but came in with a groove in mind. He created the steps in the moment, from a tune that he liked, maybe something from Urban Nights or Phillipe Masques and when he did create a step, he liked to play around with it, trying it many different ways until he settled on what he thought would work best.
I learned a lot more about his process when we were working on a segment for "The Gregory Hines Show", his weekly TV series, in 1998. I was his assistant choreographer and we worked a long time on patterns of steps. He kept changing them, until finally settling on a particular flow. The next day he came and told me he wasn't going to use any of it! During that show, part of my job was to remember everything. So, when he decided not to use that pattern of steps, I didn't focus on it. I had plenty else to remember. Then, THREE days later, he'd say, casually "Barbara, what was that combination we were all doing the other day?" Gregory definitely kept me on my toes by jogging my right and left brain. It was fabulous!!
When he had a deadline to meet with the Ford Theatre gig days away and the dance unfinished and less than a week to go, I asked Gregory if he was nervous and his reply was "Nah". He didn’t elaborate, but I sensed he had been in this place before and trusted that it would come to him. Of course it did.
We rehearsed to a piece of music Gregory liked, being drawn to the groove, not necessarily the melody. While rehearsing in L.A., he hired a composer to use that groove and create a new melody that would work with the dance. After hearing many versions, Gregory wasn't satisfied. Under even more pressure, Gregory called me and asked me to meet with his regular band composer/pianist Rick Cutler. I showed Rick the dance, counted the bars, and he created a beautiful, open, laid back melody, sometimes even using Gregory's tap rhythms as back up. The music ultimately had Gregory's funky feel to it: smooth, relaxed with some solid rock solos. Gregory loved what Rick wrote and decided to call it "Boom." A great raconteur, Gregory used to say that word a lot when he told stories.
'Boom, " contains a lot of turns and classic Gregory "moves", such as his backwards turn with his leg up in the air and his variation on a pressed third. He loved to repeat his patterns. I've never heard anyone hear rhythm like Gregory could. He often began a phrase on the 2 of the bar, rather than the one. He had some very "simple" steps that are very open with lots of space, but rhythmically complex. He’d take a step and put it into a triplet, move it to a double time pattern in a kind of a roll, then come out of it with something hard hitting, using it as punctuation.
During the piece, he gave all of us, including himself, a chance to solo and improvise, but overall, there was always a feeling of ensemble dancing, like he was one of us, and all four of us were part of an entire group experience. Gregory was a total non-diva, a true team player in “Boom.”
At the theatre, all four of us were put in the same dressing room. That upset Gregory more than anything concerning the deadlines for the dance or the music! He immediately went to the one in charge and told that person how disrespectful it was to Cyd and me. He went out of his way to make sure we got the best treatment, like some kind of wonderful stage pop. Gregory was always about respect during the creation of "Boom." He never acted "the star." He wanted what was best for the dancers.
He also designed the costumes we wore, paying attention to every detail. Cyd and I wore sleeveless, black turtleneck tops, with rhinestones down the front. Gregory and Mark wore tight black shirts, with a short black jacket. All of us wore black pants. The costumes were custom made AND we got to keep them afterwards.
It seemed like endless waiting until we got on stage. I should have been a nervous wreck, dancing with Gregory, which in itself may have been nervewracking. PLUS, we were dancing LIVE on national TELEVISION FOR THE President OF THE UNITED STATES! Gregory wasn't nervous at all. In fact, he was joking around with us and exuded such confidence in us that we knew we were just going to go out there and hit! I had one heart stopping moment, when, as the first to walk onstage, I noticed from the wings a feather right where I was supposed to go. On cue, I walked out and inconspicuously pushed the feather over with my foot. I was freaking out, thinking it must have been so obvious, but I wasn’t going to take any chances of slipping on a stupid feather. I would have DIED!! Our ensemble was tight and we blended very well, our individual styles coming through in Gregory’s choreography. To use the old cliche: there was electricity in the air. The audience interrupted the piece with applause in various parts of the four minute dance and we could see that the President was obviously pleased. I’ll always remember that performance as one of the best experiences I've ever had onstage.
Gregory didn't get the chance to choreograph that often and for him to include us in this event, when he could have performed by himself, shows that he wanted so much for tap dance to be recognized. "Boom" presented to the country a variety of ethnic backgrounds, Gregory and Cyd, African Americans, Mark, Asian and Portuguese, and myself, a white New Englander, as well as men and women dancing together, yet not partnering a la Fred and Ginger. It felt very modern, very new, which was always what Gregory wanted to do to keep the art form moving forward. It says so much about his dedication to and vision of tap.
In 2003, the year that he died, Tony Waag and I spoke with him without knowing he was so ill, to ask if I could recreate 'BOOM' for my company, because Tony wanted to honor him at the Tap City Gala. He said he was happy that I wanted to do it and trusted me to do it justice. He also said he was thrilled that I had an all women’s tap company. We’d had many conversations about tapping women and he became my inspiration. Dancing "BOOM" is one way of keeping alive one of Gregory’s most precious gifts.
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