The Nicholas Brothers

Fayard and Harold Nicholas, whose careers span more than six decades, make up one of the most beloved dance teams in the history of dance - the Nicholas Brothers.

On October 20, 1914, two college-educated musicians, Viola and Ulysses Nicholas, welcomed their first child, Fayard, into the world. By the age of three, Fayard enjoyed nothing more than sitting in the audience of the black vaudeville theater where his parents performed, enraptured by the great performers on stage. He fell in love with everything about show business, and when the Nicholases added a second son to the family, seven-year-old Fayard insisted that the child be named after his idol, a silent screen comedian. Harold Lloyd Nicholas was born on March 21, 1921.

The brothers began dancing together as children, and quickly gained acclaim for their elegant acrobatic moves and mastery of tap. When Fayard was 16 and Harold 9, they made their first appearance at the legendary Cotton Club in New York. Audiences loved the "little princes" of Harlem, and the Nicholas brothers' careers skyrocketed. They appeared on Broadway, on international tours, and in numerous films, including Down Argentine Way (1940), Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Stormy Weather (1943). The brothers also successfully overcame the racism that limited their roles in Hollywood films, as well as the pain Harold endured in his unhappy marriage to the beautiful actress Dorothy Dandridge. Throughout the 1990s, the inimitable brothers continued to dance and to inspire new generations of legendary performers, including Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

Harold Nicholas died of heart failure in July 2000, at the age of 79.

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 black Vaudeville acts, particularly the dancers, including such notables of the time as Alice Whitman, Willie Bryant and Bill Robinson. He was completely fascinated by them and imitated their acrobatics and clowning for the kids in his neighbourhood. Harold watched and imitated Fayard until he was able to dance too, then apparently, he worked his own ideas into mimicry.

It seems that the Nicholas Brothers were immediately successful. Word soon spread through the city about their ingenuity and unique dancing abilities, and they were first hired for a radio program, “The Horn”, and “Hardart Kiddie Hour”, and then by local theaters, like the Standard and the Pearl.  While at the Pearl Theater, the manager of the famous New York Vaudeville Showcase, The Lafayette, saw them. Overwhelmed by what he saw, he immediately signed them up for his theater.

From the Lafayette, the Nicolas Brothers opened at the Cotton Club in 1932 and astonished their white audiences just as much as the residents of Harlem, slipping into their series of spins, twists, flips, and tap dancing to the jazz tempos of “Bugle Call Rag”. It was as if Fayard and his still younger brother had gone dance-crazy and acrobatic. Sometimes, for encores Harold would sing another song, while Fayard, still dancing would mockingly conduct the orchestra in a comic pantomime that was beautifully exaggerated. 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 Hubie Blake and his orchestra.

After this, their career began to gain momentum from the Cotton Club. The Nicholas Brothers then journeyed to Hollywood in 1934 to appear in the films “Kid Millions”, “The Big Broadcast” (1936), and “Black Network”.

The Broadway debut of the Nicholas Brothers was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, in which such stars as Fannie Brice, Bob Hope, Eve Arden and Josephine Baker appeared. The Nicholas Brothers act at the Follies, stopped the show so consistently that Fannie Brice, who followed in a skit with Judy Canova, was always forced to fall back regularly on a line at her first opportunity: “Do you think we can talk now?”, which made the audience laugh, and then become quiet.

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. Thoroughly impressed, they absorbed much of the techniques, and tried to incorporate certain ballet movements into their jazz dance patterns. In a short film that they made in London during this period, “Calling All Stars”, (1937), this interpretative style is quite noticeable and intriguing to observe.

The impression that the Nicholas Brothers made upon Balanchine, the choreographer, was so unforgettable that he invited them to appear in the Rogers and Hart Musical, “Babes in Arms”, for the 1937 Broadway season. The considered this a high point in their career because Balanchine was a ballet master and they learned many new stunts. Because of their skill, many people assumed that the Nicholas Brothers were trained ballet dancers.

In1938, the Cotton Club beckoned again, and it was during this engagement that they competed with the Berry Brothers, a black acrobatic dance trio, in a legendary conformation, a sort of dance-fight for supremacy. The event is a part of show business history.

During the 1940’s, a long and brilliant association with Hollywood began, notably in a succession of marvellous dance sequences in six 20th Century Fox musical films.

The nightclub and concert circuit took over their career, and there were long tours of South America, Africa and Europe. 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.

The Nicholas Brothers have headlined shows all over the world. They have appeared in every major television show, nightclub and theater in America and performed for the troops in Viet Nam in 1965.

The Nicholas Brothers have received many tributes and awards, which include: A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, The Kennedy Center Honors, and an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University. They are also proud of the some of students they have taught tap. They include Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson.

The Nicholas Brothers talents are enduring, and they involve themselves in shows at will. The magic is there in every movement, as it shall always be. They are the greatest tap dancers that ever stepped on a stage.