Dance Informa continues its series on stories about Ann Reinking, written by colleague and friend Debra McWaters.
Chapter 6: The Valentine’s Baby
There is no doubt, Annie and I worked harder than you could imagine to bring Gregory Hines to Broadway Theatre Project (BTP). It was worth every moment, as his classes afforded the most challenging, life-changing experience I would say almost all of the students went through for the many years he came to BTP.
He was fascinating in oh so many ways. His teaching methods used on the 25 students to be selected by us were brilliant. The class was always held in the morning, and it was formidable. All knew class was about to begin when he slipped into the restroom to change shirts, put on his tap shoes, and began tapping and warming up. After lunch, he would hold a Q&A where he would tell the students that in this session, “any question is fair game.” He would reiterate that enough times that you could see lights turning on behind eyes and Annie and I would look at each other, put our head in our hands and start shrinking down because we knew exactly what that meant. Without going into specifics, suffice it to say that the topics in these sessions were passed down from one year to the next. These Q&As became legendary over the years, and everyone had a favorite story that they wanted him to tell.
At the end of the day, no one wanted to see him go, but he left all with many life lessons he felt might help them along, such as “never take no for an answer.” This was tied in with his experience in Eubie! when he didn’t get the part but refused to accept their decision. Basically, he was persistent enough that he eventually got the job. Now, I don’t think I would advise that. Many things worked for Gregory that would work for no other human I know; however, it certainly is a good thing to internalize as it keeps one from losing self-confidence during the endless audition process and the “no, thank you” that comes time and time again.
I became more relaxed around Gregory as time went on. Annie knew that I was not going to make a mistake with one of the most valuable instructors BTP had or would ever have. Yes, I was new to this high profile artist part of BTP, but I was catching on by watching Annie. I was learning from the best — the way in which you relate to them, make them feel comfortable, keep all of the plates in the air (as we say) while they are here, have classes arranged just as they would like. She was so right on so many things. Given that, I was able to have more fun with Gregory and felt that I could loosen up.
One of the most precious relationships of my life began in 1994, when Gregory’s back went out while he was teaching class and he asked for three Advil and ice. Annie said for me to go ahead and ride with him to the airport afterward, and he sang Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” to me (which has nothing to do with anything, but he was funny and had such a lovely voice). Cutting to the chase, before he boarded the plane, he asked me if I emailed. I barely knew what that meant in 1994, but I sure did! So he wrote his email address down and gave it to me. I wrote mine down for him, and we wrote to each other about three times a day for nine years.
The friendship Gregory and I had was such an interesting one. When he, Annie and I were together, we had a grand time. He also was a great advocate for BTP and did several fundraisers for us. Gregory was not known for going to programs several times to do classes. He usually moved around, I discovered from his manager, but he came to BTP every year, except when he landed a pilot, The Gregory Hines Show, one summer and the next summer, when he called me and told me that he had just come back from the doctor and they found cancer in his liver.
The thought of not seeing Gregory jump on stage in NYC when Annie and I were holding BTP auditions as he yelled out his name and told us what song he was going to sing was hard to grasp. His surprise visits to the Broadway Chicagophotoshoot, or to any of the rehearsals for Chicago or Fosse, were going to become memories. I would not receive another opening night telegram from him again, or a “Hey Debra, Welcome to (name the city), Love, Gregory” message when I was traveling. He was my date to the opening of Fosse in Los Angeles (Annie could not be there), and he asked for advice about raising a 16-year-old son and how, as a Dean, I motivated students to bear down on their subjects. One summer, after he gave classes at BTP, he was invited to a Devil Rays game and he invited me. I watched him sit, knees together, head down, small pencil in his hand as he worked on baseball stats the entire time. These humanizing moments that were so dear would not occur again; however, to be able to have been there once was precious.
I was told that I was one of very few people who knew Gregory was sick, and as his situation became more complicated, I had a beautiful engraved crystal sent to him. I had never met Negrita Jayde, his fiancée, who was a beautiful, fiercely religious, champion body builder at one time, but not long before he died, she called to say that he wanted me to know that he “holds the crystal up to the light every morning in order to see the beautiful colors and that he can’t speak but he wants me to know that he loves me.” A day-and-a-half later, she called to tell me that he passed quietly and peacefully. Later, Negrita invited me to the family gathering and then the funeral. I immediately called Annie and Ben Vereen and asked them if they wanted to come and, of course, they were devastated and ready to go in a matter of hours. Negrita was happy to have them. The significant things to say here are that Ben stayed close to Savion the entire day and evening and helped him through the services, while Annie and I held each other up. However, we left our mark as Gregory took with him a Greek ring from me under one of his collars and two rings from Annie under his other one.
On Valentine’s Day, Gregory Hines’s first birthday after he passed, Annie and I were at loose ends, but she knew that I was having a particularly difficult time. My dear brother, Randy, and niece, Richelle, happened to be in the city, and in her usual magnanimous way, Annie insisted that we come over for dinner that night. At each of our place settings, there was a gift. We lost ourselves in laughter the entire evening and at the end, she brought out a cake that had written on it “Happy Birthday, Gregory.” There was a picture of him underneath the words. It was a joyous celebration. It was pure, unadulterated, loving Annie.
We knew that Annie was going to be leaving BTP after that year, but what a crazy time to leave. I asked if BTP could take Act II and make it into a full-blown tribute to Gregory. I also told her that I wanted very much to make the second act into something I knew he’d love and I wanted to invite Negrita and his son, Zachary. She grinned and generously said, “Do it.” It is something that I doubt anyone will ever forget. With the beautiful mind of Ryan Kasprzak, who remembered Gregory’s combination from two years earlier, Zach’s intro about his father, Ben singing “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”, Annie performing “Nowadays”, original works done by Ryan, Darren Lorenzo and others and then the largest effort I have ever made to catch and respect the essence of someone bigger than life, I believe we created, as a group, a masterpiece. Negrita and Zach thanked us endlessly and said that ours caught who Gregory was so much more closely than the one that was done at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Our last number was called “Class”, which I created with some amazing dancers and had Harry Bayron as the Leading Player. We took Gregory’s steps, his way of holding class, his words from the past, and we rebuilt his class with a space where he would have been dancing and moving about. At the end, the entire BTP Company sang a gospel song, similar to the ones that brought Gregory to a last year of life filled with faith and belief in a higher power.
Now, I own memories clear as can be of Annie’s generosity as a friend as she included me in those first backstage visits at Jelly’s Last Jam, her trust that I knew what I was doing with one of our most visible artists when he was at the Project, her trip (and Ben’s) to LA to go through one of the most surreal days of my life, a birthday party that included my family and hit every cylinder that needed to be hit that evening in order to keep sadness at bay, and her willingness to let go of directing the final act, that year of all years, so that I could say what I needed to say, and the Company could give everything they had to a teacher they revered, in order to give our guy the tip of the hat he more than deserved. That was my gal, Annie.
Now I have vivid memories, cards, videos, photos and nine years worth of emails. However, inside a small sterling silver prayer box charm on a bracelet is a piece of paper folded many times. When I open it, there is an email address written 27 years ago, and I hear that voice saying, “Do you email?”
Broadway Theatre Project does not own the copyrights to any music used in this recording. BTP is a 501(c)3 educational institution. This video appears here as part of the tribute the Project has created for Ann Reinking, a co-founder and the original artistic director of BTP, who passed away in December of 2020.
Debra McWaters was mentored for 15 years by Ann Reinking. Reinking introduced McWaters to Gwen Verdon, and they all traveled the world working on shows related to Fosse. Verdon gave McWaters the nod to teach his style. She became one who passed on what was taught, by Reinking and Verdon, and she wrote the book, The Fosse Style, with a foreword by Ben Vereen.
For over 15 years, McWaters was Assistant Choreographer and then Associate Choreographer for Director of Choreography Reinking. McWater’s Broadway career began with New York City Center Encores! production and Broadway production of Tony Award-winning Chicago The Musical, starring Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. She also worked with London, Australian and Viennese companies and two first U.S. National Tours, one originally co-starring Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen. In addition, McWaters was Reinking’s Associate Choreographer on Applause at Papermill Playhouse, No Strings! at New York City Center Encores!, The Look of Love at Roundabout Theatre Company, the original version of The Visit at the Goodman Theatre with Chita Rivera, Legends at Joffrey Ballet, Suite Kander at Missouri State Ballet, Tonight at 8:30 at Williamstown Theatre Festival and Caution: Side Effects with Melissa Thodos Dancers. She was also Associate Director and Choreographer for Broadway Under the Stars at Bryant Park; choreographer for Ben Vereen’s one-man show; and choreographer for the workshops of two of composer Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, Wonderland and Havana.
McWaters has worked with 2014 Olympic Gold Medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. She is an associate member of SDC, and was chair of the University of South Florida Dance Department. She holds a Masters degree in Math (specialty in probability/statistics) and worked at NASA on the Apollo and Skylab missions. In 1991, Reinking and McWaters co-founded the Broadway Theatre Project, a training ground for young artists. McWaters authored Musical Theatre Training: The Broadway Theatre Project Handbook, published by University Press of Florida. She teaches master classes around the country and has particularly enjoyed doing so at Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. She has studied and competed in International Latin dance, has learned some West Coast Swing and is now learning American Rhythm and American Smooth in order to begin competing again. She recently experimented with some Broadway Theatre Project alums and faculty on a video that was virtual and one that was not, and he has several more planned.