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Obituaries

Henry LeTang, 91; Tony Award-winning choreographer and tap dance teacher

May 08, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Henry LeTang, a tap dance teacher and Tony-winning choreographer who taught many of the biggest names in dance, including Chita Rivera, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, died April 26. He was 91.

LeTang, who choreographed a number of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, died in his sleep at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, said his son, Henry LeTang Jr. The family declined to give the exact cause of death.

In recent years LeTang had lived in Las Vegas and continued coaching dancers at his home until a few months ago.

LeTang took his first tap dance lessons at age 7 in his native New York City and opened his first dance studio at 17. Many of the early performers he coached were nightclub singers, including Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. He also worked with actress Betty Hutton.

"I started teaching one or two people I knew and word got out," LeTang recalled of those years, in a 1981 interview with the New York Times.

He started working on Broadway in the early 1940s, where he was the assistant choreographer for "My Dear Public" in 1943 and the director of the tap routines for "Dream With Music" the following year.

His list of gifted students continued to grow. In the early 1950s Gregory Hines, the late tap dance star and his older brother, Maurice, were students.

"Henry LeTang was a great teacher for Gregory and me," Maurice Hines said in a 2006 interview with Dance Teacher magazine. "Henry gave us the love of the dance."

Other performers with whom LeTang worked include Milton Berle, Harry Belafonte, Debbie Allen and Ben Vereen.

He returned to Broadway to choreograph the musical "Eubie" in 1978. The popular revue featured the music of ragtime composer Eubie Blake.

Three years later LeTang choreographed "Sophisticated Ladies," another popular musical revue. Both shows earned him Tony nominations. LeTang became known for his "sleek, show-stopping tap numbers," the New York Times reported in 1981.

He went on to win a Tony in 1989 for "Black and Blue," a song and dance show with music by Duke Ellington and others, sharing the award with three collaborators.

He had several Hollywood successes. LeTang choreographed "The Cotton Club," Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film with scenes set in the famous Harlem nightclub of the '20s.

In 1989 LeTang choreographed "Tap," a movie with a cast of famous dancers, including Gregory Hines, Glover and several old-time "hoofers." "Tap" was the last film for another star, actor, singer and dancer Sammy Davis Jr.

LeTang was born June 19, 1915, in Harlem. His mother took him to a tap dance recital when he was 7 and he decided then to become a tap dancer.

After a few years of dance lessons he auditioned for Buddy Bradley, a teacher who coached leading actors, including James Cagney. LeTang couldn't afford lessons so Bradley gave him an office job and taught him whenever he had time.

As a teenager LeTang auditioned at the Cotton Club and survived several rounds of cuts before he was turned down because of his height. He was 5 feet 4, but the other finalists were all close to 6 feet tall.

He went on to dance professionally as part of a touring show starring entertainer Sophie Tucker.

He was 17 at the time. Soon afterward he settled in Harlem and opened his dance studio. He moved to Las Vegas in the early 1990s and coached local talents as well as major performers.

LeTang was married three times. His third wife, the former Ellie Epps, died in 2002. In addition to Henry Jr., he is survived by another son, Jon. Other survivors include a sister, Edith LeTang, and 10 grandchildren.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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