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On the eve of a show that marked a well-earned victory in tap dancing's long fight to regain respect, the star of that show made an interesting nod toward the least-hip entertainment program in modern history.

At Carnegie Hall, Gregory Hines starred in "An Evening of Tap," along with Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde and Savion Glover of the Broadway show "Black and Blue"; Brenda Bufalino, founder of The American Tap Dance Orchestra; Steve Condos, star of many musicals; Lynn Dally and the Jazz Tap Ensemble, which uses everything from pop to classics; and Arthur Duncan.Arthur Duncan was, for 15 years, the tap dancer on "The Lawrence Welk Show."

"Lawrence was not known as the hippest show around," said Hines with a laugh. "But I'll tell you, when nobody was home I'd tune in, hoping to catch Arthur.

"He's one of the most underrated dancers around, and a lot of that has to do with the association of the show. But other dancers know he's great - and for a while he was the only one keeping tap in the public eye."

Things have improved since the lean years of the '70s. Broadway shows like "Eubie," "Sophisticated Ladies" and "My One and Only" spotlighted old-style tap, while extravaganzas like "42nd Street" gave the chorus-line version a showcase. The current hit "Black and Blue" features a host of new and old-time tappers, and tap has returned to the movies, where it was once king, with "Tap" and "The Cotton Club." (Both starred Hines, as did "Eubie" and "Sophisticated Ladies.")

Tap has also had a modest renaissance in clubs, with dancers like Honi Coles and the Copasetics; the Hoofers; Bufalino, Dally and Jane Goldberg.

But for all that, Carnegie Hall marked a particularly satisfying milestone. "It feels significant," says Hines. "Carnegie Hall was always a prestigious place."

From his home in California, Arthur Duncan agreed. "The very name `Carnegie Hall' makes you want to do your best," he said. "It brings up a vision of black ties."

Incidentally, Duncan chuckled at the suggestion he once single-handedly kept tap alive. "I've been accused of that. But I don't know how much truth there is to it. I do know that when you got a minute and a half of airtime on a show as big as Lawrence Welk's, that was pretty good."

Duncan described his own style as "a little of everything, mostly close tap, close rhythm tap. Bill Robinson was a great influence on me, but you steal a little from everybody, really, and then it comes out your own."

Duncan's first show biz experience wasn't anything that foreshadowed his one day helping save an art form. "At the age of 13, I was grabbed by the throat and put into a junior high school show. I didn't want to do it. I was thinking I'd be a pharmacist. But when I realized I enjoyed performing, I dropped out of school, and I've been making a living at it for more than 30 years now. It's taken me to places I'd never have gone with a regular job."

Today Duncan does a club act that features tap. "Being on a TV show, you're always doing someone else's music. Now I'm doing my own thing." He thinks tap is in pretty good shape, and that it's gradually getting the artistic recognition it deserves.

Hines suggested that one of the best things about the Carnegie show is that it presented tap as a contemporary art.

"The image of tap to a lot of people is tails and a top hat going up a beautiful staircase. It's thought of nostalgically. On TV, it's often done in a retrospective way. I saw an ad just the other day that had tap: It was set in the '30s, filmed in black and white and there was a couple dancing. I love to see tap anywhere, but it's these kind of things that make people think it's something from the past. It's in the present, too."