Tap dance as an art form may have lost its currency but while in vogue, it cultivated many followers. The Niicholas brothers were really good at it.Tap dance involves striking the floor with tap shoes to get sounds; the shoes having a metal “tap” on the heel and toe.
Its variations include flamenco, rhythm (jazz) tap, classical tap, Broadway tap, and post-modern tap. Broadway tap is rooted in English theatrical tradition while Rhythm tap lays emphasis on musicality.
Classical tap, on the others hand, marries European “classical” music with American foot drumming while Post-modern or contemporary tap incorporates abstract expression, thematic narrative and technology.
Regarding its ethnic borrowings, it spans the Spanish flamenco, African tribal dances, English clog dancing and Irish jigs.
Unfortunately, as with many things in history, people with African ethnicity ancestry were contained by the two-colored rule, which forbade black people from performing solo.
But then again, thanks to the power of melanin, two black people stood out with this dance form. They were Fayard (1914–2006) and Howard (1921–2000), named the Nicholas Brothers.
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum, labels the Nicholas Brothers as “the greatest dancers of the twentieth century,” which is no mean feat.
Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas dancing in the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” Years later, Harold recalled that they never rehearsed the jumps over each other’s heads but still managed to do the routine in just one take. pic.twitter.com/pVSAfUtLaY— Dust-to-Digital (@dusttodigital) September 27, 2019
The brothers had an early insight into the art, thanks to their parents who performed in the Nicholas Collegiates band in vaudeville houses.
Fayard, the eldest, had the great fortune of seeing the great African-American acts of the time backstage and memorialized their acts. He taught his younger brother Howard the moves when he got home, such that, by 1932, the brothers became a featured act at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
Goldstein says of the Philadelphia boys:
“We tend to think of them now as stunt dancers because of their acrobatics. But that takes away from the fact that they were incredibly graceful, elegant dancers. They were great comedians, too, with a real chemistry between them, and Harold was also a wonderful singer.”
Harold could slide in a split through the legs of ten showgirls at once. Much more, the brothers were a hit on Broadway in both The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms.
Despite the immense talent and skill they possessed, the fact that they were nonwhite led to obstacles erected in their path as they never starred in their own movie but rather used as specialty act in Hollywood.
This led them to make only five films for Twentieth Century Fox, including ‘Down Argentine Way’, where they could skirt around racial issues by pretending to be “Latin American,” and ‘Stormy Weather’, whose all-black cast also included Bill Robinson and Lena Horne.
When Fayard was drafted, Harold performed solo in two movies. At Gene Kelly’s insistence, Fayard and Harold re-united on screen for MGM’s ‘The Pirate.’
Being so damn good yet deliberately underutilized took a toll on Harold who left the country for Europe in the 1950s. However, the brothers’ influence is still felt throughout America.
It’s now known that scenes featuring African-American performers were routinely cut form big-studio releases in the thirties and forties to mollify white southern audiences.
Having great plans for his wards, Joseph Jackson hired the elder Nicholas 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.
Bob Fosse modelled his first dance act on them as did many others. The brothers also inspired Gregory Hines, who had a long career in entertainment.
Nicholas Brothers’ routines include a succession of jaw-dropping leaps, flips, and splits executed with a flawless style which is hard to emulate even today.
Their fans include Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. According to Fred Astaire, the brothers “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in ‘Stormy Weather’ is the greatest musical sequence of all time, underlying the quality the pair possessed.
The Nicholas Brothers sustained a career spanning eight decades, having presence in vaudeville and nightclubs, on Broadway and television, as well as film.
It is befitting that we celebrate the fact that such humans lived with us and shared their gifts.