Amazing Nicholas Brothers
The Nicholas Brothers' dance sequence to "Jumping Jive" in the film, "Stormy Weather," which fellow dancer Fred Astaire described as the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen
The clickety clack of the tap dancers suddenly stopped when the duo took a long run, walked two high steps up a wall, turned a backflip and landed in a split.
The Nicholas Brothers then bounced back to their feet and tapped into the next beat – still smiling.
“That’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” asked Fayard Nicholas, 64, after a film clip from one of their 40 movies.
“You couldn’t pay me money to do that now,” said his brother and partner of 52 years, Harold, who is 60 and still dances.
Dancer Gregory Hines once said that if a biography of the Nicholas Brothers were ever filmed, their dance sequences would have to be computer-generated because no one could emulate them. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov called them the most amazing dancers he had ever seen. Recently, the legendary dance team cultivated fans at the University Theater of California State University at Dominguez Hills, where they lectured students.
The children of college-educated musicians who played in their own orchestra, the brothers were “born into show business,” said Fayard, during an interview at the famous Schwab’s drugstore in Hollywood.
“Our parents played in the orchestra pit. And whatever city they were in, they had me in a little bassinet beside them while they were playing,” said the older brother. “Maybe that’s why we have all this music.”
Fayard said he used to watch such performers as Buck and Bubble. Buck played piano and sang, while Bubbles tapped along on stage above Fayard, who was convinced of the thrill of entertaining. But the dancers – they seemed special.
“As I was watching them, I said to myself, ‘I’d like to be doing something like that,’ he said. “I used to go home and try to do steps that I saw people do on stage.”
The self-taught dancers, who originally called themselves the Nicholas Kids, surprised their parents at home one day with their own routine.
“They said, ‘Hey, we got something here.’ “
Their mother, who played piano, and their father, who played drums, gave up the orchestra and began managing their sons’ act. At one time, their sister, Dorothy, danced with them, but the late hours prevented her from staying with the team.
It was their father who suggested they “do their own thing” and “make up your own steps.” Fayard, who taught his brother, accentuated their hand movements.
“That’s because of my father,” said Fayard, who stands at 5-foot-4. “I was doing it all the time, but not as much. I’m dancing with my hands. You must use your whole body. It’s all right when you make a lot of taps, but you must do more.
“There are a lot of dancers who make a lot of taps, but nothing happens up here,” he said, holding his arms up to his chest.
The brothers started their professional careers at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia in 1930 when they were 7 and 11 years’ old.
As their fame spread along the Eastern Seaboard, they danced in Harlem’s famous Cotton Club uptown for two years and at the Paramount Theater downtown for just one show.
“This time we were doing a show with Duke Ellington,” he said. “Paramount wanted the Cotton Club Revue to play at Paramount. We opened. Did the first show. It was beautiful. We were sensational.
“We went to the dressing room. There was a knock on the door. My father opened it.
“That was wonderful,” said the visitor.
“He said, ‘Thank you.’ “
“But they can’t work here,” said the representative from a children’s rights organization.
“We were too young to work downtown,” Fayard said, “but we could work uptown ‘til the wee hours of the morning. And nothing was said. It was run by gangsters.”
The young brothers fraternized with the club’s patrons – many of them famous stars. Black adults were barred from the audience.
Fayard talked with soft gestures as he moved onto the Nicholas Brothers’ film career.
“Pie, Pie Blackbird” was their first film. It also starred Eubie Blake.
Other films followed – “Stormy Weather,” with Lena Horne; “Kid Millions,” with Eddie Cantor and Lucille Ball; “The Big Broadcast,” with Caesar Romero and Alice Faye. Then, there were Broadway shows – Rodgers and Hart’s “Babes in Arms” and “Ziegfeld Follies.”
More recently, Fayard worked with Lola Falana and Roscoe Lee Brown in “Liberation of L.B. Jones,” and Harold starred with Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte in “Uptown Saturday Night.”
Currently, Harold is the star of “Sophisticated Ladies” at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
Fayard, who teaches dance, offered some advice to young performers today, many who seem to want quick and easy success.
“You’ve got to concentrate on being good,” he said.
He confessed his one difficulty with dance:
“I couldn’t get that time step. You know, they say the time step is the basic step of tap dancing.
“I finally got it and then, I never used it,” said Fayard, with a devilish grin.
(This piece was first published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on February 16, 1983. Harold Nicholas died in 2000 and Fayard in 2006.)