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By Lisa Traiger
When John and Leo Manzari tear up the floor, their old-school rhythm tapping recalls brother acts of a time gone by—the Nicholas, Condos, and Hines brothers. Though the brothers may need a few years to catch up to their predecessors (Leo isn’t old enough to vote), the Manzaris recently blew the roof off Duke Ellington’s old stomping grounds, the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC. The brothers brought audiences to their feet in a flashy, record-breaking revival of Sophisticated Ladies, choreographed by Maurice Hines for the Arena Stage. Spiffy in their tuxedo pants and striped vests, the brothers playfully snagged the limelight from their mentor Hines. When they performed “Ko-Ko,” a rhythmic conversation that flitted, fluttered, and pounded before subsiding in an easy final handshake, The Washington Post called it one of the show’s highlights.
Hines first glimpsed 15-year-old Leo, with his riot of curls and shy smile, in a jazz master class a year ago at Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “First I saw all this hair pop up, then I looked out and I thought, ‘Wow, who’s that?’ Later, he was sitting out so I went over to ask if he was OK. John spoke up: ‘Yeah, my brother’s OK.’”
When Hines heard the word “brother,” a chill went up his back. Ever since he picked out a young Savion Glover at another dance class and then passed the tap prodigy on to his own brother Gregory to mentor, Hines has been itching for a prodigy—or two—of his own. After class, Hines casually asked the boys if they could tap. “Uh huh,” John answered. It didn’t take long to demonstrate what he meant. Hines urged the brothers to try out for the Arena Stage production he was mounting. After the audition, Hines remembers, “I looked up to my brother Gregory and just said, ‘Thank you.’”
In performance, John, 18, has elegance and refinement, his arms as fluid as a ballet dancer’s, his head cocked slightly, expression serious, upper body floating atop nimble beat-emitting feet. Leo’s improvisations, in contrast, burst with bubbling foot syncopations, his hair tumbling, his arms akimbo, displaying an easy physicality as suited to the basketball court he also loves as much as to the dance floor.
The pair, born and raised in Washington, DC, has been dancing practically since they could toddle. Their mother Mary Manzari, a legal secretary, says that before they were even in preschool, strangers would stop to ask if her sons studied dance because the boys seemed like natural movers—and were always moving. They began dance lessons at age 3 (John) and 2 (Leo). Over the years they danced at several DC-area studios, building a solid foundation in tap, ballet, jazz, and hip hop. They also competed frequently, winning awards at New York City Dance Alliance, Onstage New York, Hall of Fame Dance Challenge, and a host of other competitions. These days the boys study ballet privately with Troy Brown in Washington, DC, and travel to New York for private tap classes with Anthony Morigerato, who has choreographed some of their numbers. “The fact is,” says John, “if you stay at one studio, you don’t get as many of the experiences from different teachers and different training that we’ve had.”
The brothers have started getting offers. This past summer they performed on the National Mall at the Kennedy Center with Branford Marsalis on a program that included the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company and on Fox TV’s So You Think You Can Dance and The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. John has deferred his freshman year at Marymount Manhattan, depending on their dance commitments.
Both brothers turn to past greats for their tap inspiration. While Hines’ link to generations of tap dancers was the basement of New York’s Apollo Theater, inhaling the buck and wing, time steps, Maxie Fords and friendly but competitive banter from the likes of Fayard Nicholas, “Baby Laurence,” Teddy Hale, Charles “Honi” Coles and a slew of others, YouTube is the Manzaris’ new theater basement.
After he finishes classes at the private Field School, Leo goes home to surf the web with his brother looking for old black-and-white clips. “Watching videos has given both of us a lot of material,” said Leo. “I look at other people’s styles and try to make it my own. Like Gregory Hines said in one video, ‘You take it and then you try to shape it.’ ” Leo names some of 20th-century tap’s greatest stars as influences: the Nicholas brothers, “Buck and Bubbles,” Sammy Davis, Jr., and the Hines brothers, whom he and John first saw on Sesame Street.
Hines notes that an old-school show like Sophisticated Ladies demands triple-threat dancers who can sing, act, and dance everything from jitterbug to Ailey-style contemporary in addition to tap. “When these boys came to me, they were raw, but they had that something,” said Hines, 66, who has taken the pair under his wing. The boys’ mother, who serves as her sons’ manager, uses Hines as a sounding board, calling him to seek advice about potential performance opportunities. And when the boys see Hines in New York, he checks out their latest routines and gives them the nod.
“What John and Leo have is above charisma,” Hines says. “The audience adores them the minute they see them. And they are growing and getting better and better. Right now my job is to guide them the way I was guided.”
Lisa Traiger writes on theater, dance and the arts from Rockville, MD.
Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Arena Stage