AS a youngster playing basketball, Gregory Hines would tell his buddies that he had to go home because his mother was calling him. But it was really because he wanted to watch Arthur Duncan. A smooth song-and-dance man, Mr. Duncan became one of the first African-Americans to be hired as a regular cast member on a television variety program when he joined ''The Lawrence Welk Show'' in 1964. From then until 1982 -- a period in which tap dancing was otherwise largely absent from the small screen -- Mr. Duncan beat out his rhythms every week. ''Lawrence used to introduce me as the man who's keeping tap dancing alive,'' Mr. Duncan recalls.
This evening Mr. Duncan and four others will be honored at the annual ''Tap Extravaganza,'' held this year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. The event tends to be grand (in 1991, for example, 24 people received awards) but messy. The talent level ranges wildly. You get the sense that the organizers invited not only the world's best tap dancers to perform, but practically every tap dancer in New York, as though trying to prove a point.
And perhaps they are. Tap doesn't get the attention it once did, and many of its greatest practitioners are quite advanced in age. Most theater owners don't even want to let tap dancers scuff up the floorboards -- so the thinking was, if they could book a venue, they were going to make the most of it. ''Everybody we knew was onstage,'' recalls Traci Mann, a founding organizer of the event, which is open to the public.
This year's 16 acts display that spirit of inclusiveness. Savion Glover is on the bill; there's also a children's group (Fulton Feet Express), an all-female ensemble of bebop dancers (Barbara Duffy and Company) and an old-fashioned tray-spinning act from Germany (Tap and Tray). And, of course, there are the elders: Jimmy Slyde, the epitome of cool at 77, and Jeni LeGon, irrepressible at 87.
The honorees cover a similar range. Frankie Manning, the acclaimed lindy-hopper, isn't even a tap dancer. Neither is George Wein, though as producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, he scheduled a 1962 lecture-demonstration that reconnected tap and jazz in the public consciousness, if only briefly.
Mable Lee, who says she thinks of herself primarily as a singer, put on her tap shoes for shows with the Original Hoofers in the 1970's. She's at least 70 herself, though don't expect her to reveal her age -- or act it. Her outrageous outfits and vamping always bring down the house.
Even piling on the awards, the organizers don't always recognize everyone in time. Leroy Myers, a comic tapper, manager of the Copasetics tap club and, in later years, producer of the weekly tap jam at Showman's bar in Harlem, died, at 84, on April 26. BRIAN SEIBERT