The Nicholas Brothers were a duo of dancing brothers, Fayard and Harold, who excelled in a variety of techniques, including 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 1943 movie Stormy Weather has been praised as one of the most virtuosic film dance routines of all time.
Growing up surrounded by vaudeville acts as children, they became stars of the jazz circuit during the Harlem Renaissance and performing on stage, film, and television well into the 1990s.
The Nicholas Brothers where born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of college-educated musicians who played in their own band at the 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 known around Philadelphia. Performing at the Standard since the late 20’s and by 1932 they became the featured act at Harlem’s Cotton Club, when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18.
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 presume they were trained ballet dancers.
By 1940, they had moved to Hollywood and for several decades divided their time 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.
In 1991, the Nicholas Brothers received Kennedy Center Honors to recognize their achievements spanning 60 years. A year later, a documentary film We Sing & We Dance celebrated their careers and included tributes from Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, M.C. Hammer, and Clarke Peters. In 1994, members of the cast of Hot Shoe Shuffle also paid tribute to the Nicholas Brothers.
The Nicholas Brothers taught master classes in tap dance as teachers-in-residence at Harvard University and Radcliffe at 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, Chris Scott, Tobius Tak, Carol Zee, and Steve Zee.
Fayard was the oldest brother in the famous Nicholas Brothers dancing team. He became a member of the Baha’i Faith in 1967 and was known for sharing the teachings of the Baha’i Faith with many people.
One of the brother’s signature moves was to arise from a split without using the 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.
One of the Nicholas Brothers most famous performances was in the movie, Stormy Weather, where they leapfrogged down a long, broad flight of stairs, while completing each step with a split.
Fred Astaire once told the brothers that the “Jumpin’ Jive” dance number in Stormy Weather was the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen.
After watching their amazing performance, watch this interview of Fayard by The National Visionary Leadership Project where he discusses the making of the routine performed in Stormy Weather.Share: