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The Nicholas Brothers were a famous African-American team of dancing brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000). With their highly acrobatic technique ("flash dancing"), high level of artistry and daring innovations, they were considered by many the greatest tap dancers of their day. 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 be seated 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. They 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 Dorothy as the Nicholas Kids; they were 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 the city. 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. While 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. By 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 that exhilarating 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 attribute their enormous success to this unique style of dancing that was greatly in demand during this time.
The brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and also appeared in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's legendary musical Babes in Arms in 1937. They made a huge impression on their choreographer, George Balanchine. The impression was so great that he was the one who invited them to appear in Babes in Arms. With Balanchine's training they learned many new stunts and their talent led many people to assume they were trained ballet dancers.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn saw them at the Cotton Club and, being impressed by their entertaining performance, invited them to California to be a part of Kid Millions (1934), which would be their very first role in a Hollywood movie. By 1940, they were in Hollywood and for several decades alternated between movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, television, and extensive tours of Latin America, Africa, and Europe.
It was their tour of England with a production of "Blackbirds" that gave the Nicholas Brothers an opportunity to see and appreciate several of the great European Ballet companies. In 1948, they gave a royal command performance for King George VI at the London Palladium. Later, they danced for nine different Presidents of the United States. 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, Tobius Tak, Carol Zee and Steve Zee. Harold died July 3, 2000 of a heart attack following minor surgery. Fayard died January 24, 2006, of pneumonia after having a stroke.
The Nicholas Brothers are the recipients of the 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance, to be presented in June, and they are the subject of "Brotherhood in Rhythm"; The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers", a 1998 Ph.D dissertation at New York University by Constance Valis Hill.
Fayard married three times:
Upon his death 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 and dance and as appropriate, 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.
A signature move 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 (see photo above). 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. In that famous 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.
Another signature move 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.
According to a Los Angeles Times article on the Brothers and their Hollywood Walk of Fame star, "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."
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 suffered a heart attack early today, following minor surgery at a New York hospital.