Hinton Battle Didn’t Start Out As ‘Gotta Dance.’ But He GotThere.

David Hinckley
5 min readJan 31, 2024

Considering he won three Tony Awards for his Broadway dancing, Hinton Battle was pretty candid in admitting there were times when he resisted the call of his feet.

Battle, who died Monday at the age of 67, carved out a rich career that made him a much-loved player in Broadway’s musical revival of the 1970s and 1980s. From there he segued into choreographing, with productions that ranged from the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards to the Off-Broadway show Evil Dead: The Musical and the famous “Once More, With Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He also danced in that one.

Hinton Battle accepting his 1984 Tony for ‘Tap Dance Kid.’

He created a one-man song-and-dance show, Shine, that traveled around the world. He played Bill Robinson in Disney’s Shirley Temple movie and teamed with Wynton Marsalis to produce a film about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. He created a fusion dance of swing and hip-hop that he called “Swop” and introduced it on Dancing With the Stars in 2006. For several years he ran a dance academy in Japan.

He set out on the dance path before he was a teenager. While he didn’t come from a musical family — his father was a career Army officer and his mother a homemaker — he was singled out around the age of 9 as a potentially skilled dancer and sent for lessons.

But if he was born to dance, that didn’t mean he necessarily saw it that way himself at the time.

“I always wanted to quit dance,” he said in a 1983 interview. “I mean, when you’re 10, who wants to put on tights and ballet slippers? I wanted to play ball.”

He stayed on it, doubtless with encouragement from the grownups, and after three years at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, he won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York, where he studied under George Balanchine.

Until he ran into one of the challenges of a performance career.

“I was studying as a classical ballet dancer, but I ran out of money,” he said in 1983. “So I auditioned for Broadway, and I got a role out of town.”

That role was in the chorus line for The Wiz, the reimagining of The Wizard of Oz with a black cast headlined by Stephanie Mills. What happened next, as Battle told it, was a quintessential career-shaping show-biz moment. Stu Gilliam, the original Scarecrow, quit at intermission one day and Mills plucked Battle from the chorus to become the new Scarecrow.

It has also been reported that it was producer Ken Harper who, unhappy with the show’s Baltimore tryout, made multiple cast changes, the Scarecrow among them. Battle’s version has so much more flair.

In any case, he was thrust rather abruptly into the role. “I didn’t know any lines,” he said in 1983. “But I knew I could dance.” So when Mills tugged on a straw, he’d leap out, do a split and say something. Anything. Since the scarecrow had no brain, that was fine, and when the show opened on Broadway in January 1975, 18-year-old Hinton Battle was the man dressed in straw.

That led him to Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ in 1978 and then to the gig as Gregory Hines’s understudy in the 1981 Duke Ellington musical Sophisticated Ladies. When Hines left, Battle stepped in and won his first Tony as featured actor in a musical.

As Hines’s participation would suggest, much of the dancing in Sophisticated Ladies was rooted in tap, which was not home turf for Battle.

“I never wanted to tap,” he said in 1983. “I liked ballet. Before Sophisticated Ladies, I had never tapped. That’s where I learned.”

Learned pretty well. Two years later he was cast as Dipsey, the tap-dancing uncle and Pied Piper in The Tap Dance Kid. Dipsey was a hoofer, the kind of dancer who was born to tap, and Battle was a convincing enough Dipsey that he won his second Tony.

“What I liked about The Tap Dance Kid is that it was really about characters,” he said. “There was more substance to the numbers. There was a reason we were doing each dance.”

That was particularly true of “Fabulous Feet,” the showcase number where Dipsey explodes into the exhilaration of dancing.

“That number is about 10 minutes long,” Battle mused. “I came in early, and we built it in stages. It started with me, and then we put all the other things together, like pieces in a puzzle. The audience loves that one. They jump out of their seats.”

Battle allowed that by this time, he had broadened his horizons beyond classical ballet.

“I’m having too much fun singing, acting and all kinds of dancing,” he said. “Just putting on ballet shoes at this point doesn’t seem that interesting.”

He also joked that, at the advanced age of 27, “I’m probably a little out of shape for classical.”

After the Broadway run of Tap Dance Kid he went out on the national tour, where the kid who had been played on Broadway by Alfonse Ribiero now was played by Dule Hill, who would later become better known for his roles on the TV shows West Wing and Psych.

Battle would win his third Tony for his dancing in Miss Saigon in 1991. After that he moved away from Broadway, except for one appearance as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

With Alfonse Ribiero in ‘Tap Dance Kid.’

“I’m not ready to go into teaching yet,” he said in 1983, “but I’d love to do more choregraphy.” He talked about what he had learned from Fosse, from Danny Daniels on The Tap Dance Kid, from Henry LeTang when he played in the movie The Cotton Club and from Michael Bennett and Michael Peters. He would later work for years with his good friend Debbie Allen.

“My cup runneth over,” he said.

While Battle would eventually spend much of his career life behind the scenes and outside the stage world, he had firm views on what Broadway needed to do.

“I’d like to see more book musicals,” he said in 1983. “The only other one I see [besides Tap Dance Kid] is La Cage. Dreamgirls has so much music that to me it’s almost more like an opera.”

He also wasn’t crazy about the phrase “black musicals.”

“I’m black and I don’t know what a ‘black musical’ is supposed to be,” he said. “A good show is a good show. It’s a show about people. You don’t walk out of Nine and say, ‘That’s an Italian musical.’ “

But you did walk out of Sophisticated Ladies or The Wiz or The Tap Dance Kid knowing you’d seen some dancing. We were all lucky that young Hinton wasn’t allowed to take off his ballet shoes in 1966 and go play ball.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”