Last month was a busy one for the Heimowitz brothers — Max and Sam. They celebrated their joint bar mitzvah Veterans’ Day weekend at Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District and brought home straight A report cards from Alice Deal Middle School. They also made their professional tap dancing debut with superstar hoofer and singer Maurice Hines at Arena Stage.
Sit them down for a chat and it’s no surprise their effervescent energy needs an outlet. Sam bounces on the sofa, flipping and tossing a pillow, while Max, slightly under the weather with a cough last week, finishes his twin brother’s sentences, interrupts, agrees, disagrees and tries to keep Sam on topic. Longtime tap dance students at Takoma Park’s Knock On Wood Tap Studio, where they study with Lisa Swenton-Eppard and former Broadway leading man Baakari Wilder, the brothers were picked out of an Arena Stage audition by Hines for a feature spot late in his 90-minute autobiographical song-and-dance show, the eponymous Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life.
Somewhat of a songbook musical, interspersed with stories of Hines’ escapades with his brother, the late, great hoofer Gregory Hines when they were a brother act in the 1950s and ’60s, the show is light on tapping and heavy on songs spanning generations and genres loosely strung together to narrate Hines’s life. Gregory and Maurice made 35 appearances on The Johnny Carson Show, which jump-started their careers in show business in the 1960s and ’70s. Their dad, Maurice Hines, Sr., a drummer by training, joined the act for a while when the youngsters began to take off.
Brother acts have been a staple in tap for generations: from the Field brothers to the Ritz brothers, the Condos brothers to the Nicholas brothers, the Hines boys followed that legacy. Now 69, and still shuffling along, Maurice Hines is intent on sussing out the next generation of tap dancing brothers. Three years ago, when Hines starred in Arena’s production of Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theater, he plucked two high-school-aged brothers, John and Leo Manzari, out of a master class and help make them stars. Since then, these D.C. natives been featured at the Kennedy Center and on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.
Just last month, Hines, again on the lookout for the next generation of tap dance, saw young Sam Heimowitz at Arena’s open casting call for young tappers. Their tap teacher Lisa Swenton-Eppard had prepped a group of her best students for the audition, but Max decided to attend his friend’s bar mitzvah instead and stop at the audition later.
Hines picks up the story there: “Sam tapped for me and Leo [Manzari] said, ‘I think he has a brother.’ I always wanted two other brothers. So I asked Sam, ‘Do you have a brother?’ And he said, ‘Yes. He’s at a bar mitzvah.’ So I said, ‘Call his mother and get him here.’ So, he comes, and dances, and they’re good! Oh, my God! They’re good!”
Mother Dori Gillman chimes in here: “When they brought us backstage after the audition I said they can’t perform before Nov. 11, because their bar mitzvah was Nov. 9.” The show’s director finally called later in the week with the news that both boys were hired, and Gillman was so excited that she flew out of her car in the car pool and ran to hug her boys — in front of everyone. That still induces eye-rolling in Max and Sam.
The brothers, who attended the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital until sixth grade, dance at Knock On Wood twice a week and for this show, their instructors, Wilder with Swenton-Eppard, who both also oversee the youth tap ensemble Capital Tap, where the boys also dance, choreographed and coached their number for Hines to approve.
Wilder made sure to throw in a few moments of improvisation as well as Sam’s favorite step, the challenging single-footed wing. Max doesn’t necessarily have a favorite step; as long as it is syncopated and rhythmic, he’s happy.
Gillman says life got crazy the weekend of the bar mitzvah, with out-of-town relatives filling the house even as the boys had to decamp the next day for a rehearsal. A one-time avid ballet student as a girl, she’s pleased that her children have this opportunity. In fact, Sam only started tap lessons because his mom happened to have kept her old dance shoes in the attic and when she brought them down, he liked the tap shoes best: “They were shiny and made noise.”
While Sam began lessons at 4, which he describes as mostly lots of games in the studio, it took Max almost a year of waiting outside or observing his twin brother before he decided to join. They’ve been dancing ever since and spending many weekends on the road, following the East Coast tap festival circuit, similarly to other parents who drive their kids to road soccer games. They also play piano and studied gymnastics. Max says he wants to be a teacher when he grows up, along with a dancer and lawyer. Sam says the same thing in a different way.
At their bar mitzvah, they tag-teamed both the Torah reading of all seven aliyot and the haftarah. Wilder, their tap teacher, remarked on the breath control both boys exhibited in finessing so much reading. Do they compete? Listen in:
Sam: I did 15 sentences of the haftarah plus the ending brachas and he did 13
Max: But I did the beginning brachas.
Sam: In school I got an A in math.
Max: I get the steps the fastest.
Mom interrupts: “Boys …”
So, what have they learned so far in their first pro gig? Sam says: “Smile all the time, look out at the audience and focus on something.”
Max adds: “Don’t argue until you leave. Or at least wait to get behind closed doors in the dressing room.”
But Hines isn’t fazed. He knows from firsthand experience that brotherly competition and brotherly love go hand in hand. And besides, he says: “I love those names — Sam and Max Heimowitz!”
See the Heimowitz brothers featured in Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life through Dec. 29, Arena Stage in the District.