The Nicholas Brothers were a team of dancing brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000), who performed a highly acrobatic technique known as "flash dancing". With a high level of artistry and daring innovations, they were considered by many to be the greatest tap dancers of their day. Their performance in the musical number "Jumpin' Jive" (with Cab Calloway and his orchestra) featured in the movie Stormy Weather is considered by many to be the most virtuosic dance display of all time.
Growing up surrounded by vaudeville acts as children, they became stars of the jazz circuit during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance and went on to have successful careers performing on stage, film, and television well into the 1990s.
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.
As word spread of their talents, the Nicholas Brothers became famous in Philadelphia. They were first hired for a radio program, The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour, and then by other local theatres such as the Standard and the Pearl. When they were performing at the Pearl, the manager of The Lafayette, a famous New York vaudeville showcase, saw them and immediately wanted them to perform for his theater.
The brothers moved to Philadelphia in 1926 and gave their first performance at the Standard a few years later. In 1932 they became the featured act at Harlem's Cotton Club, when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18. They astonished their mainly white audiences dancing to the jazz tempos of "Bugle Call Rag" and they were the only entertainers in the African-American cast allowed to mingle with white patrons. They performed at the Cotton Club for two years, working with the orchestras of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. During this time they filmed their first movie short, Pie Pie Blackbird, in 1932, with Eubie Blake and his orchestra.
In their hybrid of tap dance, ballet, and acrobatics—sometimes called acrobatic dancing or "flash dancing"—no individual or group surpassed the effect that the Nicholas Brothers had on audiences and on other dancers. The brothers attributed their success to this unique style of dancing, which was greatly in demand during this time.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn saw them at the Cotton Club and, impressed by their entertaining performance, invited them to California to be a part of Kid Millions (1934), which was their first role in a Hollywood movie. The brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and also appeared in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's musical Babes in Arms in 1937. They impressed their choreographer, George Balanchine, who invited them to appear in Babes in Arms. With Balanchine's training, they learned many new stunts. Their talent led many to assume they were trained ballet dancers.
By 1940, they had moved to Hollywood and for several decades alternated between movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, television, and extensive tours of Latin America, Africa, and Europe.
They toured England with a production of Blackbirds, which gave the Nicholas Brothers an opportunity to see and appreciate several of the great European ballet companies.
They were also featured along with Cab Calloway and Cyd Charisse in Janet Jackson's Video for "Alright".
The Nicholas Brothers taught master classes in tap dance as teachers-in-residence at Harvard University and Radcliffe as Ruth Page Visiting Artists. Among their known students are Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson. Several of today's master tap dancers have performed with or been taught by the brothers: Dianne Walker, Sam Weber, Lane Alexander, Mark Mendonca, Terry Brock, Colburn Kids Tap/L.A, Channing Cook Holmes, Chris Baker, Artis Brienzo, Chester Whitmore, Darlene Gist, Tobius Tak, Carol Zee and Steve Zee.
Fayard married three times:
- Geraldine Pate (1942–55);
- Barbara January (1967–98) (until her death);
- Katherine Hopkins (2000–24 January 2006) (until his death)
Fayard died January 24, 2006, of pneumonia after having a stroke. His memorial service was standing room only. Presided over by Mary Jean Valente of A Ceremony of the Heart, the service was a moving collection of personal tributes, music, dance, and one last standing ovation.
Harold was married four times. He was first married to singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge from 1942 to 1951. The couple had one child, Harolyn Nicholas, who was born severely mentally handicapped. In Paris, he had a son, Melih Nicholas, by his second wife. Harold lived on New York's Upper West Side for approximately twenty years (until his death) with his third wife, Swedish-born Rigmor Alfredsson Newman, a producer and former Miss Sweden.
Style and moves
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 once told the brothers that this dance number was the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen.
In another signature move, they would rise from a split without using their hands. Gregory Hines declared that if their biography were ever filmed, their dance numbers would have to be computer generated because no one now could emulate them. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov once called them the most amazing dancers he had ever seen in his life.
According to a Los Angeles Times article on the brothers, "Because of racial prejudice, they appeared as guest artists, isolated from the plot, in many of their films. This was a strategy that allowed their scenes to be easily deleted for screening in the South."
- Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932) (short subject)
- The Emperor Jones (1933) (Harold Nicholas)
- Syncopancy (1933) (short subject) (Harold Nicholas)
- Kid Millions (1934)
- An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935) (short subject)
- Coronado (1935)
- The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935)
- The Black Network (1936) (short subject)
- My American Wife (1936)
- Babes in Arms (1937)
- Calling All Stars (1937)
- My Son Is Guilty (1939)
- Down Argentine Way (1940)
- Tin Pan Alley (1940)
- The Great American Broadcast (1941)
- Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
- Orchestra Wives (1942)
- Stormy Weather (1943)
- Take It or Leave It (1944)
- The Reckless Age (1944) (Harold Nicholas)
- Carolina Blues (1944) (Harold Nicholas)
- Dixieland Jamboree (1946) (short subject)
- The Pirate (1948)
- Pathe Newsreel (1948)
- Botta e Riposta (1951)
- El Misterio del carro express (1953)
- El Mensaje de la muerte (1953)
- Musik im Blut (1955)
- Bonjour Kathrin (1956)
- L'Empire de la nuit (1963) (Harold Nicholas)
- The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) (Fayard Nicholas)
- Uptown Saturday Night (1974) (Harold Nicholas)
- That's Entertainment! (1974) (archive footage)
- Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1975) (archive footage)
- Disco 9000 (1976) (Harold Nicholas)
- That's Dancing! (1985) (archive footage)
- Tap (1989) (Harold Nicholas)
- That's Black Entertainment (1990) (archive footage)
- The Five Heartbeats (1990) (Harold Nicholas)
- "Alright" (Janet Jackson song) and video (1992)
- The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance (1992)
- Funny Bones (1995) (Harold Nicholas)
- I Used to Be in Pictures (2000)
- Night at the Golden Eagle (2002) (Fayard Nicholas)
- Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (2003)
- Hard Four (2005)
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)
Other notable achievements
- In 1948, the Nicholas Brothers gave a royal command performance for King George VI at the London Palladium.
- A retrospective of their work in films appeared at the 1981 Academy Awards ceremony.
- During the course of their lives, the brothers danced for nine different Presidents of the United States.
- The brothers' home movies were selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 2011.
- Kennedy Center biography of Fayard Nicholas
- "Biography". The Nicholas Brothers' official website.
- "Dancer Fayard Nicholas dies at 91", USA Today (Associated Press) (January 25, 2006).
- "Nicholas Brothers". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 06 November 2013.
- Imogen Sara Smith, "The Nicholas Brothers", Dance Heritage Coalition, 2012.
- Fayard Nicholas biography page at the Internet Movie Database.
- Persky-Hooper, M. (1987, August 22). The Nicholas Brothers: 50 years of footwork. New Pittsburgh Courier (1981-2002).
- Biography (p. 4), Nicholas Brothers website.
- Biography (p. 5), Nicholas Brothers website.
- Classes and Performances with Tap Masters
- Los Angeles Choreographers and Dancers - Colburn Kids Tap/L.A
- National Tap Ensemble cast
- Everybody Dance! meet our teachers
- Selected profiles of African-American Bahá'ís
- Program of Fayard Nicholas' memorial service
- Misha Berson, "Can't stop the hop: Swing-dance artists visit Seattle", The Seattle Times, August 16, 2006.
- Century Ballroom Presents, 2nd Annual The Masters of Lindy Hop and Tap
- "Fayard Nicholas of renowned Nicholas Brothers dancing duo dies", Jet, February 13, 2006.
- Dunning, Jennifer (July 4, 2000). "Harold Nicholas, Dazzling Hoofer, Is Dead at 79". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
The cause was heart failure following surgery at New York Hospital, said Bruce Goldstein, a friend and a writer of the 1992 documentary Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance.
- "Harold Nicholas Obit". National Public Radio. July 3, 2000. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
Harold Nicholas suffered a heart attack early today, following minor surgery at a New York hospital.
- Dennis McLellan and Lewis Segal, "Nicholas Brothers - Dance Team", Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2000, and January 26, 2006.
- "Awards & Honors", Nicholas Brothers website.
- http://www.tapdance.org/tap/people/nichbros.htm - Fayard and Harold Nicholas biography
- PBS Documentary "Free to Dance" timeline(2001), Great Performances.
- National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame Inductees
- Biography for Harold Nicholas, IMDb.
- "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 28, 2011.
- Constance Valis Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. ISBN 0-19-513166-5
- Jitterbuzz Lindy Week Review interview with Fayard Nicholas
- Performing Arts Gliding Off the Dance Floor: Fayard Nicholas by Terry Gross
- Remembrances Dancer-Choreographer Fayard Nicholas
- Remembrances Inspiration to Astaire, Dancer Fayard Nicholas by Joel Rose
- Harold Nicholas obituary
- Nicholas Brothers Story on Electro Swing Italia