Behind every great song-and-dance routine is a sibling rivalry. Or so it seems, if you take a moment to Google tap-dance history, or read the cast list for the upcoming Arena Stage musical revue “Tappin’ Thru Life.” The show — set to begin previews Nov. 15 — stars stage and screen entertainer Maurice Hines as himself, reminiscing about his career in show business. “This show is important to me,” Hines says, “because it’s about my brother and my career dancing with him.”
For five decades, Gregory and Maurice Hines could be found dueling onstage, on TV and at the movies. The tapping partnership ended in 2003, when Gregory died of cancer. But Gregory will appear in film clips and photos included in the show, which is directed by Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun. Tappin’ alongside Hines live onstage? Two sets of D.C. siblings. John and Leo Manzari were 14 and 17 when they danced with the veteran in Arena’s hit production of “Sophisticated Ladies” three years ago. They have since grown in statue and swagger, and performed on a dozen more Washington stages plus the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Joining the Manzaris are two Deal Middle School seventh-graders who were “Sophisticated Ladies” fans: identical twin tappers Sam and Max Heimowitz.
“The Heimowitz brothers. I like the sound of that,” Hines said, rubbing his hands gleefully. “The Manzari brothers are unique, and so are Sam and Max, in a different way. D.C. has got the dancing brothers. It is just a joy. D.C. is fierce.”
But at their first rehearsal, Hines discovered he has work to do before Max and Sam’s rivalry is ready for the stage. Adolescent competition is about eye-rolling defiance; tap duels are about smiling and slamming steel against wood. “Do you see those guys,” he said, pointing to the Manzaris. “They may look like nice guys, but you’ve got to go after them, and go after each other.”
The twins bobbed their sandy blond heads obediently. Too obediently. But when Hines began shouting out counts of eight, they pursed their lips and narrowed their eyes and pounded the floor with a bit more force. A major number in the show will pit four brothers against one another to out-spin, out-run and out-tap the other three guys onstage.
Hines will dance, too, though at 70, he’s dialed back his act a bit. The five tappers will be accompanied by the Diva Orchestra, a nine-piece, all-female big band. Arena Stage is the second of five theaters where Hines and the Manzaris are scheduled to tour with “Tappin’ Thru Life,” but the District has long been one of his primary theatrical homes. In addition to his run in “Sophisticated Ladies,” Hines’s area credits include starring in Arena’s 1999 production of “Guys and Dolls,” and directing “Josephine Tonight” at MetroStage last year.
He’s proud of his professional endeavors, but knows he owes his career to having a brother who could tap alongside him. “The Hines Kids,” as Maurice and his kid brother were called, were only 7 and 5 when they first danced at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. They’d grow up to become household names, thanks to making three dozen guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” and starring in the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film “The Cotton Club.” Both were nominated for Tony Awards, but only Gregory — who also garnered seven Emmy nominations — ever took one home.
“It’s a special thing, sibling tapping,” said Tony Waag, a longtime admirer of the Hines brothers who serves as director of the American Tap Dance Foundation. “They have that special edge that makes them competitive and supportive, because you can’t have one without the other.”
Cases in point: Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and his sister, Adele. Gene Kelly? He never could have kept up with Cyd Charrise if his younger brother Fred hadn’t tried to outdance him first. The Nicholas Brothers. The Condos Brothers. The Berry Brothers. The Whitman Sisters. From Vaudeville through the present day, tap dancers tend to come in symbiotic sets, and their success can likely be attributed to mix of genetics, showmanship and sharing the same bathroom for years.
“When family members dance together, they have a lot of experience being together,” Waag says. “When you are related to someone on that level, and you’ve been performing together so long, you’re going to finish each other’s sentences.”
Starting with Astaires and ending with three of those “fierce” local pairs, here’s a look at six sets of dancing siblings, and their signature tap-dance styles.
The partnership: Born Frederic and Adele Austerlitz, the Astaire siblings were 4 and 6 when they left Nebraska for New York. “Adele was the dancer,” Hines said, “She inspired him.” After their New Jersey debut, they were billed “the greatest child act in vaudeville.” They continued dancing together for 20 years, finally parting ways in 1932, when she married Lord Charles Cavendish and moved to an Irish castle.
The signature style: There are only seconds of surviving film that show Adele dancing, but by all other accounts she was the natural talent and Fred was the showman. When he finally went solo in Cole Porter’s “Gay Divorce,” the London critics hailed Astaire as a new crossbreed of actor-dancer who made tapping sexy. The 1934 film version also starred Astaire and featured the first of many his many seductive duets with a young dancer named Ginger Rogers.
The partnership: Fayard and Harold Nicholas grew up backstage at the Philadelphia theater where their parents worked. They were still teens when they performed with Eubie Blake in their first movie in 1932, and were regulars at the Ziegfeld Follies by 1936. In 1937, they worked for ballet choreographer George Balanchine in the Rodgers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms.” Many more stage and screen shows followed in their six-decade careers, and the brothers received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991.
The signature style: “They were very athletic, and they were what we call a clash/flash act,” said Tony Waag, director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, noting that they often performed in white tuxedos. “We patterned ourselves after them,” Maurice Hines said. “Fayard was more balletic; I got very turned on by the way he used his hands. Harold was more into the ground, like Gregory was.”
The partnership: Gregory was 3 and Maurice was 5 when their mother signed them up for dance classes with pioneering tapper Henry LeTang. They opened for the likes of Lionel Hampton and Gypsy Rose Lee, and credited Johnny Carson with making them household names. They were 11 and 9 in 1954 when they debuted on Broadway, and they’ve been famous ever since.
The signature style: “Gregory’s style was really hoofing, it was right down into the ground. I was more balletic,” Hines said. “Every dancer has a natural thing they can do that’s a gift from God. Mine was spinning.”
The next steps: Maurice’s “Tappin’ Thru Life” is scheduled to run April 2 through May 4 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and travel on to Cleveland and Los Angeles. “They say they want to take this to New York,” Hines says, “But I don’t know about that.” (His last Broadway effort, “Hot Feet,” was a three-month flop in 2006.) He’ll also direct and choreograph the musical “Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song,” at MetroStage in January.
The partnership: Chloe and Maud Arnold grew up in Montgomery County and the District and started dancing together when they were 13 and 7, respectively. They trained at Taps and Company under the direction of Toni M. Lombre, but their big break came when they took master classes at the Kennedy Center with Debbie Allen, the real-life dance teacher who also played one on the television show “Fame.” Through Allen, the sisters made connections that have led to a successful career performing in the music video industry; both have doubled for Beyoncé.
The signature style: “Fierce footwork with a feminine touch,” say Chloe. She claims to be more refined and sassy, while Maud is “a wild card.”
The next steps: This season, the sisters are principal dancers on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” In 2008, they founded DC Tap Fest, an annual weekend of master classes and shows that unites tap studios from the District, Maryland and Virginia. The sixth annual festival is planned for April 10-13 at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
The partnership: Hines may claim to have discovered John and Leo Manzari, but they were already well known in D.C. studios before “Sophisticated Ladies.” Both brothers took a variety of dance classes and performed at the Kennedy Center with American Ballet Theatre. They made their debut as the tapping Manzari Brothers in 2010, and local theaters have had them on speed-dial ever since. John, 21, splits his time between New York and Washington, while Leo, 18, lives in Southwest.
The signature style: “As soon as people see us perform, they think, ‘Hines. Nicholas,’ ” John said. “But we also try to add our own style.” “We are a flash act,” Leo adds, “but we can hit, hard.” Onstage, the brothers appear engaged in a friendly rivalry. They smile, shrug, then try to outdance each other. Don’t ask who can do the most pirouettes.
The next steps: John and Leo are both booked to tour with “Tappin’ Thru Life.” As to what else is on the horizon for their performing careers, John says they really can’t say — yet.
The partnership: Sam began taking tap classes at age 4, and a year later, Max decided he was bored by watching and wanted to tap, too. “We’ve tried a lot of things,” says the twins’ mother, Dori Gillman, “but it was tap that stuck.” With Capital Tap, a youth ensemble based at Knock on Wood studios in Takoma Park, the boys have performed at special events across the area. “Tappin’ Thru Life” is their first appearance as a duo.
The signature style: Max says he’s still thinking about this one, while Sam says anything involving “the one-footed double wing.” While hopping on his right foot, Sam scrapes his left foot on the floor for about six inches before kicking out sideways, twice.
The next steps: Max and Sam will have to miss Capitol Tap’s holiday shows while they perform at Arena Stage, but will perform again with the ensemble again in the spring. They are also celebrating their bar mitzvah this month. “Tappin’ Thru Life” director Jeff Calhoun, the Manzaris and Maurice Hines have all promised to attend.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
at Arena Stage at the Mead Center from Nov. 15 to Dec. 29. 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.