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Tappin’ Thru History: Tap Duos

 

In Tappin’ Thru Life, Maurice Hines pays homage to the many great performers who have influenced him. Given the nature of his performance, we decided we should hail the tap duos of the past and future whom he and his brother Gregory have informed and been informed by. The Hines brothers, although legendary and integral members of theatre, are part of an impressive line of tap duo heavyweights who dazzled the nation with their style, technique and mastery.

Before we welcomed Maurice Hines to our season, I was not aware of the very rich and thriving following and culture that such tap duos have built up over the past century. When I first saw the videos below, I was blown away by the sheer vigor and joy these performers brought to the stage. We’ll start with the “original” tappers and move on to the most recent ones:

Pops and Louis

Pops & LouieAlbert “Pops” Whitman was the son of Alice Whitman of The Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours. When Alice joined the Sisters in 1903, they were the highest-paid act in the Negro Vaudeville circuit. Albert, born in 1919, became the last member of the family to join the act, before the age of five. “Pops,” as he was nicknamed as his career grew, exploded in the dance world as a performer who impressed audiences with his acrobatic skill as a tap dancer, adding cartwheels, flips, splits and more into his act. He teamed up with various talented tap dancers before his early death in 1950, the last of whom was Louis Williams. Their duo, “Pops and Louis,” became more popular than The Whitman Sisters.

In the early 1930s, Pops, Louis and a third performer, Groundhog, toured with The Whitman Sisters. After a while, Pops and Louis broke away to tour Europe with many of the big swing bands at the time. They returned to the States to continue their career and became stars of the African American variety circuit. The Pops and Louis team appeared in several films and became well known to white audiences. They were one of the first acts who incorporated acrobatics into their routines, ensuring that tap dancing today is more than just footsteps. Indeed, they seem to defy gravity:

 

The Nicholas Brothers

nicholas46Brothers Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000) Nicholas—neither of whom had any formal dance training—took the world by storm during the peak of the Harlem Renaissance and maintained their careers in stage, film and television well into the 1990s. At the tender ages of 11 and 18, they became the featured act of Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1932, the only performers at the time who were allowed to mingle with white patrons. Their Broadway debut was only four years later in Ziegfeld Follies; I have never seen dancers who were more impressive. See for yourself in this video clip from Stormy Weather (1943):

The splits sans hands, particularly the ones descending down the staircase called the “leapfrog,” became one of the brothers’ signature moves. What’s even more impressive is that they did not rehearse it beforehand. As Gregory Hines explains in the video, they imagined what they had to do and then did it.

Tap Trio: The Berry Brothersberrybro-20ovi5y

Maurice Hines himself noted that we had to include the Berry Brothers in this post. Contemporaries of the Nicholas Brothers, the Berry Brothers took the tap scene by storm, enjoying steady success in a time when tap acts were plentiful. Masters of the “freeze and melt,” a dance move that contrasts mesmerizing stillness and flashes of movement, the Berrys perfected their routine by the time they became a trio, captivating audiences who wished to see the same skills and moves over and over. The Berry Brothers originated as a duo between Nyas (1913-51) and James (1915-69) Berry at the ages of 6 and 4, respectively. In 1934, the youngest Berry, Warren (1922-96) took Nyas’s place when Nyas married; it was not long after, however, that Nyas returned to his brothers to form a trio. All of them offered something unique to the dynamic, and their chemistry made it so that their act remained unchanged and celebrated for 20 years.

The Berry Brothers took part in a legendary competition with the Nicholas brothers at the Cotton Club in 1938. While the Nicholas Brothers were famed for making their way down a staircase in splits, the Berry Brothers decided to forgo individual steps altogether, instead jumping from the top of the staircase and landing in splits. They literally leapt their way into the vaudeville act hall of fame. Watch how in this video.

The Hines Brothers

hines_brothersFormerly known as “The Hines Kids”—beginning their brilliant dance careers early on—the Hines Brothers grew to stardom in the midst of the Nicholas Brothers’ careers. Gregory Hines mused that they were known as the “new Nicholas Brothers,” a title at which he scoffed, saying that no one could live up to that title. The Nicholas Brothers did set the bar rather high, but the Hines Brothers also grew to command their own unique, powerful niche in the tap world.

Gregory Hines (1946-2003) began tapping when he was three years old. His other accolades include a Broadway career that began in 1954 with his brother, Maurice, in The Girl in Pink Tights, from which they went on to be featured in many other productions and even co-hosted the Tony Awards in 1995 and 2002, a film career that included appearances in movies such as History of the World: Part 1, The Cotton Club, White Nights, Running Scared, Tap and Waiting to Exhale, and a television career in which he starred in The Gregory Hines Show. He petitioned for the creation of National Tap Dance Day, which started in 1989. It is now celebrated in 40 cities in the United States.

His older brother, Maurice, started his career at the ripe age of five. In the 1970s, Maurice pursued a solo career and was cast as Nathan Detroit in the national tour of Guys and Dolls, after which he returned to Broadway in Eubie! He directed, choreographed and starred in numerous stage productions and music videos. He was the first African American to direct at Radio City Music Hall. This tap legend will perform on our very own Cutler Majestic stage come May 14th; his performance will be a tribute to his career, his late brother, and the brilliant artists that came before him.

Here’s a little taste of their brilliance:

 

The Manzari Brothers

manzari brothersHailing from Washington, D.C., the Manzari Brothers John and Leo are following in The Hines Brothers’ footsteps. They will be featured in Maurice’s Tappin’ Thru Life at ArtsEmerson on May 14th as Maurice acknowledges this new generation of tappers. Already, the duo has performed at The Kennedy Center, The Lincoln Center and The Strathmore Concert Hall. Their performance in Arena Stage’s Sophisticated Ladies earned them a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. They have also appeared on BET’s The Mo’Nique Show, The Jerry Lewis Telethon and FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance. Their work is reminiscent of their noteworthy predecessors, and yet it has a contemporary flavor of its own; they market themselves as performers that “combine a range of different genres of music with their own style of tap dance.” See here for yourself:

Notice how at (0:25) the Manzari Brothers teasingly push Maurice Hines offstage in a symbolic gesture. This is the passing of the torch; here Maurice makes way for the new generation of tap artists.

Time passes, things change and new tap duos form. The new generation looks promising and fresh, but we can still celebrate a member of the “old guard.” Maurice Hines is a hoot and a half and a true performer; be sure to come see Tappin’ Thru Life!

Tappin’ Thru Life is at the Cutler Majestic Theatre May 14th-19th. Click here for tickets and more information!

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