I know that I promised in Major Excitement to post about the Nicholas Brothers and this is it!
I can’t remember the first time I saw the Nicholas Brothers in a movie but I’ve sought them out ever since. I even bought their biography in 2010, Brotherhood In Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers.
Tap dancing legends Fayard (b. 1914) and Harold (1918-2000) Nicholas amazed crowds with their performances in musicals and films from the 30s to the 80s. They performed with Gene Kelly in The Pirate, with Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather, with Dorothy Dandridge (Harold’s wife) in Sun Valley Serenade, and with a number of other stars on the stage and on the screen. Author Hill not only guides readers through the brothers’ showstopping successes and the repressive times in which their dancing won them universal acclaim, she also offers extensive insight into the history and choreography of tap dancing, bringing readers up to speed on the art form in which the Nicholas Brothers excelled.
Fayard Antonio Nicholas was born October 20, 1914, in Mobile, Alabama. Harold Lloyd Nicholas was born March 17, 1921, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Nicholas Brothers grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of college-educated musicians who played in their own band at the old Standard Theater—their mother at the piano and father on drums. At the age of three, Fayard would always sit in the front row while his parents worked, and by the time he was ten, he had seen most of the great African-American vaudeville acts—particularly the dancers, including such notables of the time as Alice Whitman, Willie Bryant, and Bill Robinson. The brothers were fascinated by the combination of tap dancing and acrobatics. Fayard often imitated their acrobatics and clowning for the kids in his neighborhood.
Neither Fayard nor Harold had any formal dance training. Fayard taught himself how to dance, sing, and perform by watching and imitating the professional entertainers on stage. He then taught his younger siblings, first performing with his sister Dorothy as the Nicholas Kids, later joined by Harold. Harold idolized his older brother and learned by copying his moves and distinct style. Dorothy later opted out of the act, and the Nicholas Kids became known as the Nicholas Brothers.
From 1935. They were already on their way:
In 1936, Fayard was 22 and Harold was 15. They performed Lucky Number:
From 1940, Down Argentine Way, The Nicholas Brothers serve up a characteristically joyous, effervescent routine.
This video, from the film “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941), depicts the complete Glenn Miller Orchestra’s and Nicholas Brothers’ performances for “Chattanooga Choo Choo”
One of the greatest dance routines ever in movies by the Nicholas Brothers. From the 1942 movie “Orchestra Wives” – I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.
One of their signature moves was to leapfrog down a long, broad flight of stairs, while completing each step with a split. Its most famous performance formed the finale of the movie Stormy Weather. In that routine, the Nicholas Brothers leapt exuberantly across the orchestra’s music stands and danced on the top of a grand piano in a call and response act with the pianist, to the tune of Jumpin’ Jive.
Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in Stormy Weather (1943) the greatest musical sequence of all time.
I love how Cab Calloway fades away and lets the Nicholas Brothers take over!
Children: don’t try this at home – never, ever dance on a piano!
The Nicholas Brothers dance with Gene Kelly in the 1948 film “The Pirate”. It’s not their best work because Kelly couldn’t do what they could do. But Kelly could copy them, and The Pirate features some of his most virile and stunt-laden work.
We Sing, We Dance. A 1992 Arts and Entertainment documentary about the life of the Nicholas Brothers. Lots of great clips included!
The Nicholas Brothers’ influence can still be felt throughout our culture. Bob Fosse modeled his first dance act on them and Joseph Jackson hired Fayard to help train his children, The Jackson 5. Both Michael and Janet Jackson were later students of the brothers.
Fayard and Howard also taught at Harvard and Radcliffe.
The Nicholas Brothers got several awards and honors:
- Harold received the DEA Award from the Dance Educators of America
- Harold received the Bay Area Critics Circle Award (Best Principal Performance, Stompin’ at the Savoy)
- Harold received the Harbor Performing Arts Center Lifetime Achievement Award
- honorary doctorate from Harvard University for both brothers
- Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1978)
- Ellie Award (1984), National Film Society for both brothers
- Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame (1986), First Class Inductees for both brothers
- Ebony Lifetime Achievement Award (1987) for both brothers
- Fayard received Broadway’s 1989 Tony Award as Best Choreographer for Black and Blue along with his collaborators Cholly Atkins, Henry LeTang and Frankie Manning.
- Scripps American Dance Festival Award
- Kennedy Center Honors in 1991 for both brothers who were in attendance
- The National Black Media Coalition Lifetime Achievement Award (1992)
- Flo-Bert Award (1992)
- New York’s Tap Dance Committee, Gypsy Award (1994)
- A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Blvd (1994)
- Professional Dancer’s Society, Dance Magazine Award of (1995)
- The 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance
- National Museum of Dance Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame Inductees (2001)
I hope you enjoy watching these as much as I do.