Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Many people regard Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the greatest dancers the movies have even seen and rightfully so. However, one of the most amazing dancers that film ever captured were The Nicholas Brothers 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.

Because of the racial prejudice of the 1930s and 1940s, many of the dance scenes that The Nicholas Brothers filmed were not part of the plots of the films, so they could be cut out depending on where the movie was being shown. It is such a shame, because like other African-American entertainers at time (i.e.-Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) they deserved to be superstars. I remember seeing them as young teenagers in the Eddie Cantor movie Kid Millions (1934). Reportedly they did not want Eddie to dance on screen with them, but Cantor (a major star at the time) threatened to walk from the film. All three talents introduced the Irving Berlin song “Mandy” in the film.
The Nicholas Brothers grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of 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 was always 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.

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, 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 because of how talented they were, many people assumed they were trained ballet dancers.

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 the King of England at the London Palladium. Later, they danced for nine different presidents of the United States. Also in 1948 they filmed a classic number in the MGM musical The Pirate. The movie was a forgettable bomb, but their performance of “Be A Clown” with Gene Kelly is among the best remembered they captured on film.
With the decline of the movie musical, the Brothers left Hollywood.  They later 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.
Fayard was married three times, and two of his granddaughters are now performing as dancers. Harold was married 4 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.

Both brothers continued to dance until the mid-1990s.  Harold died July 3, 2000 of a heart attack following minor surgery. Fayard died January 24, 2006 of pneumonia after having a stroke. 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.

A signature move of theirs 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.  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. Looking back at their performances 70 years later, it is amazing the dancing ability they had. It is unfortunate that due to their race, they did not receive the fame that they deserved. However, audiences now can marvel at their abilities regardless or who they were or where they came from. Forever the Nicholas Brothers will be dancing in our memories…


  1. We booked them several times to Hollywood Palace when I worked there. I think it was that first full year '64-'65 season we were on as I was barely there for the half season before that - they were delightful.

  2. The photo of an older Fayard holding an award with another gentleman is not his brother Harold. The picture was taken at the Eight Annual American Choreography Awards in 2002. The man Fayard is posing with is the late accomplished dance instructor Henry Lee Tang.