Two for the Ages
The Nicholas Brothers’ mastery of movement
Best known for impressive acrobatics, the stage and screen tap duo Fayard and Harold Nicholas were agile technicians and fearless stunt men. But the brothers, who earned Hollywood fame in the 1930s and ’40s, were so much more.
“Of course the Nicholas Brothers were fabulous tap dancers, but they were full-bodied tap dancers,” says Billy Siegenfeld, artistic director of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. “You’re seeing a gestural kind of tap dance that can carry a story, that can convey emotion more than just on-the-spot tapping with the feet.”
For students who fall prey to sound-focused, introverted improvisations, the Nicholas Brothers prove that tap dancing is truly a performing art. Their choreography is visually and rhythmically sumptuous: Hands fly in counter-rhythm, head-nods catch fleeting 16th notes and splits stretch over full measures. They hit, bounce and slide with impeccable musical precision, balletic grace and jazzy swing. Often dressed in dapper tuxedos, the Nicholas Brothers had as much swagger as any B-boy, with the elegance of ballroom dancers.
As a child, Fayard Nicholas would finish school and rush over to Philadelphia’s Standard Theatre, where his father and mother led a pit orchestra called the Nicholas Collegians. From his front-row seat he heard jazz heavyweights such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and watched legendary black vaudeville tap acts including Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, Ford Lee “Buck” Washington and John “Bubbles” Sublett. “Just by watching,” Fayard told choreographer Danny Daniels in a 1978 interview, “I taught myself to dance.”
Fayard then taught his younger brother Harold. When they were about 12 and 5 years old, the brothers put together a routine to show their father. He didn’t have dance experience, but he offered good advice nonetheless: Use your whole body, don’t look at your feet and create your own style.
The duo made their professional debut in 1930 tapping on “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour,” a radio variety show featuring young performers. Soon after, the family moved to New York, where the boys had landed a gig at the Lafayette Theatre. In 1932, at the ripe old ages of 18 (Fayard) and 11 (Harold), they performed for the first time at Harlem’s Cotton Club. They’d continue dancing there for the next eight years (off and on), sometimes alongside the very same musicians and dancers who had inspired Fayard.
Their performance in the 1932 short film Pie, Pie Blackbird probably resembles their Cotton Club act. They’re young performers, but have a dexterous command of rhythm, finding jaunty accents to play against the bouncy but square tune. They also show off their athleticism: Harold whips his arms around while pounding the ground in a double toe stand, and Fayard throws in a quick split.
Their skills caught the attention of Hollywood, Broadway and even George Balanchine, who cast the brothers in the 1937 production of Babes in Arms. “He asked us to do a little something on the stage, so he could get some ideas,” Fayard told Jennifer Fisher of the Los Angeles Times. “Balanchine said to us, ‘You look like you did ballet’…Well, I told him, ‘We just dance the way we feel, and if it looks like ballet is in there, so much the better.’ We never did ballet—I guess it just came naturally.”
That poise and grace, along with their keenly attuned ear for jazz rhythm—not to mention their mellifluous singing voices—was perfectly suited to the era’s movie musicals. They made their full-length–movie debut in 1934 in Kid Millions and soon began appearing in film after film, including Down Argentine Way and Sun Valley Serenade. They also teamed up with choreographer Nick Castle, who pushed them to try ever more daring stunts. They were widely known as a “flash act,” a term for acrobatic-heavy performers. But the Nicholas Brothers weren’t doing tricks for the sake of tricks. In “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” from the 1942 movie Orchestra Wives, Harold does a tight double tour en l’air, drops straight into a split and then pulls his legs together to stand up—all in perfect time to the music. “You often would see people do tap dancing and acrobatics, but they tended to break the flow of the rhythm and interrupt it to do a trick,” says tap dancer Sam Weber. “The Nicholas Brothers never did that. Their acrobatics were always incredibly musical.”
The brothers’ style reached its apotheosis in Stormy Weather, an all-black musical featuring Lena Horne and tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In “Jumpin’ Jive,” the brothers dance with Cab Calloway and His Band. They are suave yet buoyant, and their taps crackle with tight rhythms while their bodies—arms, hands, heads, torsos—add crisp accents. To top it off, they finish with a show-stopping sequence in which Fayard takes a flying leap from the top of a staircase and lands in a split on the next step down. Harold leaps over Fayard, landing in a split on the stair below. Then Fayard jumps over Harold, and so on until they reach the bottom—only to bound back up the steps and slide down ramps that run alongside them. Fred Astaire famously called the performance “the greatest dance number ever filmed.”
Though rumor has it some audiences shouted for projectionists to play the brothers’ routines twice, other moviegoers never saw the Nicholas Brothers dance. Due to segregation in the South, producers gave black performers nonspeaking roles that could easily be excised. The brothers fought stereotypes with self-assured class, but in the 1950s, this sort of racial prejudice sent Harold to Europe. For a time, they pursued independent careers.
Fayard and Harold reunited in 1964 to perform on “The Hollywood Palace,” a TV variety show. They continued dancing, alone and together, well into their golden years, often making guest appearances at tap festivals. They also stood side by side to receive a slew of accolades. Before Harold’s death in 2000 and Fayard’s in 2006, they were given the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and a Dance Magazine Award in 1995, among others.
Though the Nicholas Brothers are distinctly of a time, they are nonetheless timeless. On “So You Think You Can Dance,” judge Nigel Lythgoe perpetually implores tap dancers to “perform” more—something that Fayard and Harold wouldn’t have had any trouble with. “They transcend tap dancing,” Weber says. “They were simply great artists in the history of dance.” DT
DID YOU KNOW…
- In 1942 Harold Nicholas married movie star Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. In Sun Valley Serenade, she dances with the Nicholas Brothers to “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
- Before they were the Nicholas Brothers, they were the Nicholas Kids, and the act included their sister Dorothy.
- In “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” in the movie Orchestra Wives, Harold Nicholas runs up a wall, pushes off into a back flip and lands in a split. Donald O’Connor paid Fayard tribute in the Singin’ in the Rain number “Make ’Em Laugh.”
- Mikhail Baryshnikov called the Nicholas Brothers “the most amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life—ever.”
- In the forward to Constance Valis Hill’s book Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines wrote, “…we will never ever see the like of the Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, dancing on any stage or screen or in person again. The dances they did. The moves they made. The pictures they painted. Well. That’s it. Enjoy it. Because, my brothers and sisters: They owned it.”
Katie Rolnick is a former Dance Teacher editor.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives