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The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)

The Nicholas Brothers were a duo of dancing brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000), 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.

Early lives

Fayard Antonio Nicholas was born October 20, 1914, in Mobile, Alabama and Harold Lloyd Nicholas was born March 17, 1921, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Viola Harden (maiden; 1893–1971), a pianist, and Ulysses Dominick Nicholas (1892–1935), a drummer.

The Nicholas Brothers 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.

Career

As word spread of their talents, the Nicholas Brothers became known around 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 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 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.

Teaching

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.

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 best remembered performance is in the finale of the movie Stormy Weather (1943). 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. Numerous articles have been written about this whole dance being filmed in one take and unrehearsed. As unbelievable as that sounds, the Nicholas Brothers confirmed it in an interview shortly before their recognition at the 14th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. The choreographer, Nick Castle, said, "Just do it. Don`t rehearse it, just do it." And so it was done, unrehearsed and in one take, which relieved Harold Nicholas because he didn't want to do the rigorous routine over and over all night.

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.

Personal lives

Fayard

Fayard married three times. His marriage to Geraldine Pate lasted from 1942 until their divorce in 1955. He married Barbara January in 1967, the same year he converted to the Baháʼí Faith, and they remained together until her death in 1998. He married Katherine Hopkins in 2000.

He died on January 24, 2006, of pneumonia contracted after sustaining a stroke. His memorial service, presided over by Mary Jean Valente of A Ceremony of the Heart, was standing-room only and featured personal tributes, music, dance, and one last standing ovation.

Two of Fayard's granddaughters dance as the "Nicholas Sisters" and have won awards for their performances.

Harold

Harold was married three times. From 1942 to 1951, he was married to singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge, with whom he had one child, Harolyn Nicholas, who was born with a severe intellectual disability In Paris, he had a son, Melih Nicholas, with his second wife. He lived on New York's Upper West Side for twenty years with his third wife, producer and former Miss Sweden, Rigmor Alfredsson Newman. Harold died July 3, 2000, of a heart attack following minor surgery.

Filmography

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 (1990)
  • 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
  • An honorary doctorate from Harvard University was awarded to 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 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
  • Carnegie Hall sold out for a tribute to the brothers in 1998
  • 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 Several of these home movies were preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2016.
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