FEATURE STORY - 12.08
TALKING TAP WITH GREGORY HINES: A CUTTING SESSION
Ed. Note: The long-gestating and -awaited memoir, Shoot Me While I’m Happy: Memories from the Tap Goddess of the Lower East Side, with Foreword by the late Gregory Hines, from trailblazer Jane Goldberg is finally available with a bonus DVD of By Word of Foot and other tapperabilia through janegoldberg.org. This reprinted section, Jane’s “cutting session” with Gregory, is an intense dialog and dance session that examines their different points of view. These excerpts from the book’s introduction and cutting session chapter have been edited for space concerns. Because this is a reprint, ellipses indicate areas where text has been cut and do not indicate pauses in thinking or in the dialog between Jane and Gregory.
From the Introduction This is not a history of tap dancing. It is a personal story of what it was like tracking down, studying, and performing with some of the tap greats during the 1970s and ’80s and then creating my own take on the art. The writer Molly McQuade once told me the contemporary history of tap dancing is the history of individual dancers. We don’t have a vaudeville circuit or nightclub-booking agents to set up our gigs. It has been up to each of us to forge ahead, inventing our own venues, performances, and stories. . . .
A CUTTING SESSION WITH GREGORY HINES
cutting session: jam session where people [men] try to outdo and outimpress one another
Floors are everything in tap dancing—how they feel, how they sound, whether they’re so fast you slip and slide, or so slow you can barely lift a foot. Some tap dancers are into shoes. My friend Gregory was really into floors. So, when I asked him one freezing January morning to meet me at New York University’s Education Building on West 4th Street, where I was teaching at the time, I rationalized, “Gregory Hines will add a moment of history to this floor.” The NYU students were out on winter recess and it was very quiet throughout the urban campus.
I was searching for a tap fix and when Gregory said yes, he felt like dancing, he’d be right over, I knew I was in floor trouble immediately. We were to meet on the top floor of the building. . . . The floor itself was the star of the room. It was that blondish–whitish–pinkish hard maple you see sometimes in fancy art galleries. It was vast, gorgeous, easily the centerpiece of the studio. It would be the perfect sounding floor. Gregory wasn’t just going to add a moment of history to this floor—he was going to clobber it, brutalize it. He tapped so hard and so loud. In 1992, Gregory Hines had ferocious feet.
I adored Gregory and felt free to call him, write letters to him, eat dinner with him, even get into a studio with him, all for the sole purpose of talking tap. I felt special about how he loved talking tap with me. There was something wonderful, intimate, intense, about talking tap with Gregory, discussing the past, present, future of the art we both were involved in at seemingly the same passionate level. As our friendship grew, however, it became increasingly clear that we had fundamental, philosophical differences regarding certain issues.
He, for example, felt the “Challenge” was the essence of tap tradition and I personally hated it. Gregory liked to talk champions, being the best. “Who will be the next King?” he’d wonder, as if tap were a sport like boxing. I felt you couldn’t compare artists on those grounds, and had no time for that way of thinking. Gregory was totally into great feet, where I felt tap was a “sensibility.” If the dancer had the right attitude, salesmanship, humor, I could just as soon watch closet hoofers and beginners as virtuosos.
When we got to the subject of women in tap—women and wardrobe, for example—I saw red! We really locked horns about what constituted feminist or even female feet. We argued a lot, idolized our favorites, debated everything tap. . . .
IN GLARING ERRORS DEPARTMENT:
Recently I received a terrific review of my book Shoot Me While I’m Happy by Marcia Siegel in The Boston Phoenix (August 13, 2009, Books). I felt understood and “heard.”
But Siegel erroneously wrote that I had organized in Sole Sisters “a showcase of veterans like Frances Nealy and Dianne Walker and younger women like Brenda Bufalino doing old routines and inventive contributions to the tap renaissance.” I know Brenda Bufalino has never liked the “young woman” moniker, in regard to the years of Sole Sisters, and she is a generation senior to Dianne Walker. For someone who likes tap dancing a lot like Siegel, made this kind of error. Siegel’s writing was some of the first I had ever read about tap in New York Magazine when Leticia Jay was producing revues with Chuck Green and friends at the Hotel Dixie in NYC in 1969. She obviously got her dancers mixed up, as well as her facts.
In another flaw, Jennifer Dunning, also a critic who likes tap dancing, writing Ernest Brownie Brown’s obit for The New York Times on August 25, 2009 (online version) stated in a nice descriptive sentence about their dancing, that Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, and Howard Sandman Sims, were members of The Copasetics. All three of these men were most definitely NOT Copasetics.
It’s easy to see how someone would confuse “The Hoofers” with “The Copasetics” unless you were there (Dunning was), but these errors still point out how easily this art can be mistaken by naming wrong names or definitely getting timelines and ages incorrect. It makes you wonder. Or you just try to fluff it off.
It’s hard to fluff off errors, however, when you’re an insider, or at least know some of the history as a scholar or teacher or student. Not too many care about the factions of the tap world, but it would have still been easy enough to avoid assumptions about certain dancers and their allegiances. Since I was quoted for the obituary, it would have been easy enough to ask me. From her writing, Dunning obviously loved the Copasetics Revues she saw and the art itself. We can chalk it up to memory, but it still makes you wonder about the documentation of tap dance.