It was a service done the way Henry LeTang wanted it, said son Henry LeTang Jr.: music and dance and the memories of those who knew and studied under the legendary tap dancer and choreographer, who died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 91.
LeTang, winner of a Tony Award for “Black and Blue” in 1991, taught the art of tap dancing to Maurice Hines, Gregory Hines, Debbie Allen, Savion Glover, Bette Midler, Milton Berle, Lee Marvin, Harry Belafonte, Joey Heatherton, Chita Rivera, Lola Falana, George Kirby, Nancy Wilson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Billie Holiday.
During a memorial service Monday at Holy Trinity AME Church in North Las Vegas, LeTang was praised for what he gave to his pupils and how he touched lives.
LeTang “did not teach you; he cleaned you up,” Maurice Hines Sr., father of the late actor Gregory Hines and of Broadway star Maurice Hines, told the crowd of more than 60.
Hines Sr. had heard of LeTang’s dance studio in New York and brought his sons, 5-year-old Gregory and 6-year-old Maurice, in for lessons.
“Henry and I became like brothers,” Hines Sr. said, adding that LeTang, because he was shorter, was like a younger brother to him. “There will never be another Henry LeTang. Everyone here should be glad they knew that little guy.”
Flowers with a sash reading “Beloved Mentor” decorated the front of the church, with pictures of LeTang.
The service turned into entertainment with four tap dancers performing on a wood board in front of the pews. LeTang’s pupils Shea Sullivan and Christopher Racine performed first, followed later by Andrew Nemr of New York and Jeremy Kiesman of Atlanta, both pupils of LeTang in New York and Las Vegas. Neither had tap danced onstage together before, although LeTang had wanted to pair them up in an act, Nemr said during the service.
“He is such a special person in so many lives,” Sullivan said. “He made me who I am today, not just as a dancer but as a person.”
Besides dancers re-creating many of the steps that, to a dancer, are immediately identifiable as “Henry LeTang steps,” the service was punctuated with recordings of LeTang playing the piano during rehearsals, the taps audible in the background.
“He pounded the shit out of that piano,” Hines Sr. said to laughter, even that of the officiating clergy. “That’s the kind of man he was.”
LeTang Jr. remembered his father for his go-for-it attitude and his “generosity, understanding and support.” He would say “don’t give me that face, just do it,” LeTang Jr. said.
Niece Sharon LeTang said her uncle was “an uplifting and happy guy. He gave no accolades to himself.”
He was born June 19, 1915, in Harlem and began dancing at age 7. By the time he was 17, he had opened his first studio in New York City. His first star pupils were Betty Hutton and Clifton Webb. Lena Horne also studied tap with LeTang, as did comedian Lenny Bruce.
In films, LeTang choreographed “Tap” in 1989, reuniting him with Gregory Hines, and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Cotton Club” in 1984, in which LeTang went before the cameras as a hoofer.
Besides the musical revue “Black and Blue,” LeTang choreographed “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981, “Eubie!” in 1978, “Shuffle Along” in 1952 and “Dream With Music” in 1944 and was assistant choreographer on “My Dear Public” in 1943, all Broadway productions.
LeTang was nominated in 1979 for a Tony Award for “Eubie!” and also in 1981 for “Sophisticated Ladies.” He earned a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography for “Eubie!”
In 1985, LeTang’s production “Cotton Club Revue” ran at the Aladdin and, later, at the Dunes.
In recent years, LeTang was given the Educator Award from the American Choreography Awards in 2002.
LeTang and his wife, Ellie, moved to Las Vegas in 1992 and opened a dance studio. Ellie LeTang died in 2002. He is survived by sons LeTang Jr. and Jon LeTang.