Spotlight: The Nicholas Brothers

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on the tap dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers.

Fayard Nicholas was born 20 October 1914 in Alabama, and his brother Harold Nicholas was born 17 March 1921 in North Carolina. Their parents were musicians who played in their own band at the old Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. The brothers grew up in the audience, seeing every famous African-American vaudeville act of the era, including Alice Whitman, Willie Bryant, and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson.

And early performance in the 1930s

Neither brother had any formal dance training, but they were fascinated by the new combination of tap dancing and acrobatics and often imitated the style for the neighbourhood kids. They taught themselves to dance, sing, and perform acrobatics by imitating the performers they watched. Fayard first began performing with his sister Dorothy as 'the Nicholas Kids', and Harold soon joined. Dorothy later pulled out of the act and they changed their name to 'the Nicholas Brothers'.

Late 1930s

Word spread quickly, and the brothers became famous in Philadelphia. Their first engagement was on the radio show The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour, followed by engagements at the local theatres. While they were performing at the Pearl Theatre, the manager of a famous New York vaudeville showcase called the Lafayette saw and immediately wanted to engage them.

In 'Stormy Weather', 1943

They were engaged at the Standard Theatre a few years later, before moving on to become the featured act at Harlem's Cotton Club in 1932. Harold was 11 and Fayard 18; they astonished their mostly white audiences with their dances to jazz music like 'Bugle Call Rag'. They were also the only performers of the African-American cast who were allowed to mingle with white patrons. They stayed at the club for two years, performing alongside the orchestras of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford. In 1932, they also filmed their first movie short, Pie Pie Blackbird, with Eubie Blake and his orchestra.

Cotton Club programme, featuring Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers

The brothers attributed their success to their hybrid dance style which was in extremely high demand, combining ballet, tap dance, and acrobatics. The producer Sam Goldwyn saw them while they were performing at the Cotton Club and invited them to California. In 1934, they were part of their first Hollywood film, Kid Millions. Their Broadway debut was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. They so impressed their choreographer, George Balanchine, that he invited them to be a part of the 1937 musical Babe in Arms. Under Balanchine's tutelage they learnt many new stunts, and their talent led many to assume they were trained ballet dancers.

In 'Stormy Weather', 1943

They had moved to Hollywood by 1940 and began to alternate between films, nightclubs, Broadway, television and overseas tours. They also taught master classes in tap dance at Harvard University and Ratcliffe. They are known to have taught Debbie Allen and Janet and Michael Jackson.

In 'Sun Valley Serenade', 1941

Both brothers were married three times. Fayard died on 24 January, 2006, of pneumonia after suffering a stroke. Harold died 3 July, 2000, of a heart attack following minor surgery. Two of Fayard's granddaughters perform as 'the Nicholas Sisters', and have won awards for their performances.

In 'Sun Valley Serenade', 1941

The brothers danced in many films, but their scenes were often disjointed from the plot of the film. This allowed their parts to be cut when the film was shown in the Southern States of America. They had several signature moves, including the famous 'leapfrog splits' sequence, which they performed down a series of stairs. They were also the forerunners of our modern breakdancing. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov called them the greatest dancers he had ever seen. Others have said that a filmed biography of them would have to be computer-generated, because no-one can dance like they could.

Here's them in the performance Fred Astaire called 'the greatest dance number I have ever seen', from the 1943 film Stormy Weather:

And in Technicolour in the film Down Argentine Way:

There are plenty more on YouTube, and I highly recommend watching them.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Gene Kelly.

- Selene

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