Still the Tap Dance Kid

Photo: Patrick McMullan

“I consider myself a tap dancer first,” says Dulé Hill over a breakfast—waffles, eggs—that might not leave him very light on his feet. “I’m also an actor, but at the root of it I’m a dancer.” It’s how he got his start: Growing up in Sayreville, New Jersey, his mother taught ballet at the Marie Wildey School of Dance in East Orange. “My brother and older cousins were dancing, and I was just following the crowd.” When Hill was 10, he was cast in a Broadway production of The Tap Dance Kid; he ended up the lead in the touring production.

Afterward, Hill, now 36, was still somewhat undecided about showbiz. He landed guest spots on shows like The Cosby Show and New York Undercover but also enrolled at Seton Hall. “My plan was to be a corporate lawyer,” he says. “But that changed when I realized how much more studying I was going to have to do.” Two years in, Hill was cast in Bring in Da’ Noise, Bring in Da’ Funk. “We had a Wednesday matinee, and I had a midterm that day,” Hill recalls. “I went to the teacher and said, ‘I’ll take the test early.’ He said, ‘You have to decide, do you want to get a degree or be in show business?’ ”

Shortly thereafter, Hill moved out to Hollywood but didn’t see much action. “My agent dropped me. Then this casting director who had tested me for another role searched me out for this role on The West Wing.” The show had been criticized by the NAACP for its all-white cast. “My understanding is that they were always going to bring Charlie in,” Hill recalls of President Bartlett’s body man, for which he is still probably best known. “Now, whether Charlie was always going to be black, I don’t know.” Race certainly played a part in the Charlie Young story line, a working-class kid who shows up for a lowly job in the White House and winds up dating the president’s daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), aggravating a white-supremacist group and resulting in the shooting in the first-season finale. “I don’t look for roles that address race, but, if I’m going to play the character, race has to be a part of it in some way. I can’t take away my blackness,” Hill says. He left the show in 2005 to play Burton “Gus” Guster, reluctant partner to James Roday’s Shawn Spencer, a fake psychic detective, on USA’s Psych; that role was also “not written to be an African-American,” he says. “But we’re best friends and we have to deal with it, so we joke about it.”

Now he’s back on Broadway, in the Alicia Keys–produced play Stick Fly. It tells the story of two brothers who both decide to bring home new girlfriends for a family reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. The frankness of Lydia Diamond’s script drew Hill in. “No matter how perfect your family, there are always things that aren’t getting said, that ride beneath the surface.”

It’s all part of the dance. “I had a piece of wood set up for tap in my trailer at The West Wing, and I also had one at Psych,” he says. “But I don’t get to dance as much as I like. If I dance too much on set, then I start sweating and they have to do the makeup over.” For Hill, there’s not much that separates tap from dramatic performance. “It’s all choreography,” he explains. “Even approaching Aaron Sorkin’s work, the first thing I noticed was the rhythm of it. And even the play we’re doing now, it’s a dance. From the time I walk on the stage until the lights go out, we’re all just moving beings, creatures dancing. You’re going here, I’m going here. You’re coming harder, I’m retreating.”

Stick Fly
Cort Theatre.
In previews, opening December 8.

Still the Tap Dance Kid