one look tells you that moving is what he's all about.
His body radiates undercurrents of rhythm and syncopation even when he's still, or sitting. Eyes agile behind the glasses, with a beard that is part of his visual trademark, he talks with an animated swing of his voice and his features dance in accompaniment.
Dancing since the age of 5, when his mother Alma took him and younger brother Gregory for tap lessons in Harlem, he is only now making the headlines, with his recent success in the movie "The Cotton Club," and an earlier boost from a Broadway stint in "Sophisticated Ladies."
One of his biggest moves is the one he's now making in Washington, where the innovative company he founded recently with Mercedes Ellington -- Balletap U.S.A. -- is having its first extended engagement in a major city. The troupe, featuring Hines, Ellington, guest artist Carmen de Lavallade and an ensemble of 12 dancers, opened a two-week run at Ford's Theatre last night, in a program of choreography set to rock, disco and classic jazz.
Hines is particularly excited about the Ford's opening because Washington played a special role in his artistic development. "I really want to give back some of the love Washington audiences gave to me at a very difficult time in my life," he says. "When I'm on that stage, I'll be dancing to thank them."
He's referring to the period in the '70s after brother Greg split from the family act, "Hines, Hines and Dad," which the brothers had formed with their drummer father and had toured the club circuit with for years. Maurice was deeply shaken by the experience, and it was his engagement at Carter Barron Amphitheatre with the national touring company of "Guys and Dolls" that turned things around for him.
"I was selling shirts, literally, after Greg and I broke up. I was floundering, I didn't know where I was going or how I was going to get there. So Washington was real lucky for me. The audience response was so terrific, and people would wave to me in the street and say, 'Hi, Nathan!' Hines' role was Nathan Detroit . It was the experience that made me discover myself as a solo performer, apart from my brother."
"The Cotton Club" reunited the brothers Hines very much in the way the picture's script reconciles the fictional brothers of the '20s they portray in the film. The movie has given both of the Hineses, but Maurice especially, a new level of professional exposure. For Maurice, the making of the movie was profoundly significant, in some ways good, in others, not so good.
"Being on the set with Honi Coles, Jimmy Slyde and all those other great tap dancers I'd idolized since I was a kid was very tough for me at first. I'd never really had any recognition from guys like that. It was different with my brother Greg -- he was a hoofer, he was one of them. But my style was a little more balletic. Then they saw me doing my stuff, alone and with Greg, and they began to come over and say, 'Hey, lemme give you a step.' I mean, when they start showing you their steps -- that's their personal treasure -- it's like, wow! And then, when some of them started saying, 'How about you giving me one of your steps,' I really knew I was in. Like, it took me 40 years to get to this point. It seemed like living in a dream to me, making a movie with those guys."
Hines' living connection with the heritage of the Cotton Club era has a bloodline link. His grandmother was one of the Cotton Club's original dancing chorines. "We brought her onto the set," Hines says. "She said, 'It looks just like when I was a young woman -- but we never thought it was important enough that people would make a movie about it.' They also brought other gals back from those days, some of them 75, 80 and still kicking. Six of them got up and started whaling away. I couldn't believe it."
What Hines wasn't too happy about was the frustration of seeing so much good dance material cut from the final movie, and much of the rest edited in such hyped-up fashion that it can't really be seen or savored. "Greg and I had this terrific number where we're breaking in our tap shoes, and they didn't even leave in half of it. I don't think these things were Francis' director Francis Coppola's fault. He was very giving, he trusted me when he had no reason to, and he gave me a kind of opportunity I never had before. The producers, the backers, they were afraid of presenting something the public might perceive as a 'black musical,' that they thought would fail the way 'The Wiz' failed.
"Also, there was a lot of movie politicking going on -- talk about who was bankable and who was not. Richard Gere, the star, had to have more time on the set than anybody. The movie was originally supposed to be about these two sets of brothers, one black, one white, and Francis had wanted the two to have equal weight in the story. The way it came out, the black story is sort of a backdrop to the white one."
Hines is proud of the scenes involving himself and Greg. "Our scenes were mostly improvised," he says. "Francis said, 'You did it in real life, now do it again for me.' And it was true -- we'd lived through the movie plot, the breakup of the brothers act, the hugging and making up -- I think that's why it came out feeling so real. I think our part of the film could have been developed more, but in the movie world, your destiny is in others' hands. At least I feel that what we did do was done with respect."
He's also especially proud of one dance bit that was, he feels, purely fortuitous. "They yelled out, 'Action! Roll 'em!' and I just freaked out. I remembered that old dance saying, 'When in doubt, spin.' So I just started spinning and ended up doing nine, nine, pirouettes -- I'll never do that again. The dancers in my company -- Balletap U.S.A. -- all wanted to know, how did I do that. It was just luck, believe me."
Hines and dancer Mercedes Ellington formed Balletap U.S.A. -- which had its official debut last April at Philadelphia's Academy of Music -- because they wanted to create an outlet for contemporary tap choreographers, including themselves, who aspire to carry on the tradition of the hoofers of the Cotton Club period, and give it a modern look, not just a nostalgic backward glance.
"The trouble is," Hines says, "tap has never been accorded the respect it deserves in this country, as a technique, as an art form. Even among many young black people today -- they still say, 'Tap? Oh that's Uncle Tom'; they're still fixated on Bill Robinson playing valets to Shirley Temple. Abroad it's always been different. I saw the difference immediately the first time Greg and I went to Europe, when we were picked up in front of the Prince of Wales Theatre in London by a limousine. There you weren't 'just a hoofer'; you were an artist, and if you got to the theater first, you rehearsed before the star.
"In this country, though, it's still the same, at least in the movie and theater world. Now with things like 'The Cotton Club' and 'Sophisticated Ladies' and other shows, all of a sudden everyone wants tap, and all kinds of dancers think they can tap. Dancers show up for casting calls, make a lot of noise on stage and think they're doing tap. People don't realize how hard it is, how complex a technique. And young dancers today, even those who want to tap, they've learned to dance to counts. That's not tap dance. The great hoofers, that generation, they tapped to music -- it was jammin', not counts. With these young people, you have to unteach them before you can teach them."
Teaching is much on Hines' mind. As it is, he teaches twice a week at an uptown Broadway studio in Manhattan, but he says he next big venture, along with Balletap U.S.A., is going to be a school. "I'm frightened about the future of tap," he says. "When I was a kid, our mom took Greg and me to the Apollo, and we saw Teddy Hale, Honi Coles, Baby Lawrence -- we saw the greats. But that was another age. And it's the children you've got to go to, if tap is going to survive.
"I'll have to do another movie next year to make enough money for it, but there's a firehouse in Harlem I'm going to convert into a school. I can't allow this style of dance to die. When I was on the set of 'The Cotton Club' with Honi and the Copasetics, they told me and Greg, 'You guys are the last of us. When we go, you've got to carry on.' I made them a promise, and I'll keep it. Those guys -- I owe it to them. Without them, I'd be nowhere."