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Tap dancing star and choreographer Maurice Hines dies at 80

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Maurice Hines was a dancer, a choreographer and an evangelist for the art of tap dancing. He and his brother, the famed Gregory Hines, helped keep tap in the public eye. Maurice Hines died on Friday in New Jersey. He was 80 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COTTON CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And now, ladies and gentlemen, making their debut at the Cotton Club, the Williams brothers from Harlem.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola movie "The Cotton Club," Maurice and Gregory Hines play the Williams brothers, two tap dancers in Prohibition-era Harlem. Morris plays Clay, the more straight-ahead brother. He doesn't want to do anything too flashy for their first club appearance. Gregory Hines plays Sandman, who dances to impress.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAP SHOES CLICKING)

LIMBONG: In the movie, they squabble like brothers do until the arguments turn real and they fight and grow apart. Sandman gets big on his own. Clay hangs back a bit until the end, where they reconcile.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COTTON CLUB")

MAURICE HINES: (As Clay Williams, singing) They say that when a high brow meets a low brow walking along Broadway.

LIMBONG: The broad strokes of the movie parallels the real-life relationship between the Hines brothers. Maurice Hines was born in 1943. He started tap dancing at the age of 5. His younger brother, Gregory, started when he was 3. Together, they learned and performed at clubs, hotels and casinos across the country, with Maurice Hines always looking out for his younger brother. He told NPR in 1978 that it was, at times, difficult for him to find his own identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HINES: When Gregory was born, my mother brought him home. And it wasn't her baby. It was my baby. He was mine. And everything that I did was more or less for Gregory, especially in the act. It was - set up the act so that I was a straight man and I controlled everything. I took care of the musicians. I took care so he could have room to create. Now, of course, this stifled my creativity.

LIMBONG: When the act broke up, Maurice Hines said he was unsure about his own creative juices, so he went back to basics, started working and auditioning at rinky-dink clubs in New York and finding his own voice. He found his way into theater and television, and the brothers eventually worked together again. When NPR spoke to them in 1978, it was because they'd reunited for the Broadway revue "Eubie!" And when Maurice was asked, what makes a good tap dancer? - his example was his brother.

HINES: It's a feel for tap dancing. When you see a good tap dancer, there's - it's a joy. I'm not a great tap dancer. I'm - I learn very fast. My brother is a great tap dancer in that he can improvise. He can really improvise and just go on and on.

LIMBONG: Hines continues to praise his brother's skills and says that he himself mostly skates by on flash and flair. But they are brothers, so he still gets a shot in.

HINES: Gregory tap dances on the improvisational style, with very little flash and flair. Actually, he's not very talented at all, but very little flashy flair. But he's a genius at improvising. It's fabulous.

LIMBONG: They continued to have a tumultuous relationship while Maurice started directing and choreographing Broadway shows such as "Uptown... It's Hot!" and "Hot Feet." Gregory Hines died in 2003 from cancer. More than a decade later, Maurice Hines would launch "Tappin' Thru Life," a show written to honor the people that inspired him - Judy Garland, Lena Horne and, of course, his brother. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAPELE SONG, "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.