Who was the best tap dancer? Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? I along with many others would say it is Fayard and Harold Nicholas or as they were better known the Nicholas Brothers.
Fred Astaire called the Nicholas Brothers the best tap dancers he had ever seen. And if that is not good enough and even if it is, please watch the dance routine from the film Stormy Weather.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF3KOLS9qLg
Mind blowing, awesome, and breathtaking – there aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it. Recorded in 1943 it shows tap dancing at its zenith and is the gateway into modern jazz dance, James Brown’s funky steps, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, break dancing and footwork.
So who were the Nicholas Brothers? Fayard was born in Mobile, Alabama on 28 October 1914 and his brother Harold was born in Winston-Selma, North Carolina on 17 March 1921. The Nicholas Family were part of the Great Migration. After the First World War tens of thousands of African Americans migrated from the rural Southern states to the northern Industrial cities in search of work and a better life.
The Nicholas family made that journey and settled in Chicago, the move would transfer their lives.
The black population of Chicago almost tripled during the Great Migration, from 44,103 to 109,458. A large number of those that moved to Chicago came from New Orleans and they brought with them their musical and cultural traditions. By the 1920s jazz was the popular music of the day and Chicago was one of the epicenters for black entertainment. Fayard and Harold’s parents performed in Chicago’s theatres, burlesque houses and vaudeville halls.
The family moved to Baltimore in 1924 and continued to work in the theatre. The young brothers lives were completely entwined with theatre, music and dance. But tap was their great love.
Tap dance is an indigenous American dance genre that evolved over a three hundred year period. Initially it was a fusion of British and West African musical and dance traditions. It developed in the Southern states from the 1700s and was an amalgam of Irish jig and West African gioube (sacred and secular dances). This in turn developed into a form of dancing called “jigging” which throughout the 19th Century was taken up by both black and white minstrel shows that turned tap into a popular stage entertainment.
The early tap dancers (hoofers) used clogs or hobnailed boots. Metal plates (taps) did not appear on shoes until the beginning of the 20th Century. From the 1920s all the way through to the 1940s tap and jazz music develop in tandem. They share the same multiple meters, rhythmic patterns, elements of swing and most importantly they shared the same stage.
Already professional dancers; the brothers and their family moved to New York in 1932. Fayard was 17 and Harold was just seven! There they wowed audiences with their fusion of tap, jazz, acrobatics and rhythmic brilliance. By the early 1930s the artistic Harlem Renaissance movement was in its twilight, but it was still the heart of the black entertainment industry – the home of the Cotton Club and a place you could see the very best jazz bands.
The brother’s talents quickly put them in the spotlight. They performed with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Chick Webb and Glen Miller. They also appeared in over 20 Hollywood films and shorts. By 1940, they had moved to Hollywood and for several decades alternated between movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, television, and extensive tours of Latin America, Africa, and Europe.
Here is an excerpt from the film Down Argentine Way (1940).
Yet however talented they were and they were geniuses in their artistic field; racism denied them of the critical success they so richly deserved. 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.”
The Nicholas Brothers did not pander to racism, they never performed as black minstrels or “pickaninnies” as did many black dancers in the twenties and thirties including the legendary Bill “Bojangles”. As dancer and singer Gregory Hines said:
“They used their art to transcend the boundaries and limits of their historical period, aided by a profound belief that the virtuosity, exemplary professionalism and integrity of their class act dancing would dissolve the stereotypes and appeal to a broad American audience.”
As the 1940s progressed big band jazz gave way to BeBop. Jazz dancing also experienced a revolution, out went the dance rhythms and tap and in came fast rhythmic dancing limited to the feet and torso, this developed into the classical form of jazz dancing we see today.
The Nichols Brothers did not embark on this journey, they continued to refine and define tap.
In 1948 they headlined the indoor circus extravaganza Cirque Medrano in Paris and in 1949 they appeared in a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium. With the advent of television, the brothers were much in demand and they appeared in numerous programs. Beginning in 1965, the Nicholas Brothers worked frequently in Las Vegas, and they often toured with Sammy Davis, Jr.
They also taught dance master classes at Harvard University, two of their students were Janet and Michael Jackson. Harold died in 2000 and Fayard died in 2006.
It’s time to let the Nicholas Brothers feet do the talking. This is a clip from a Jackson 5 TV show, it is wonderful to watch Michael Jackson dancing with the Nicholas Brothers, they may be in their sixties but they are still throwing their trade mark moves – jumped splits and fast tap work. The stage outfits are pretty amazing too.
If you want to know more about the Nicholas Brothers there is a wonderful book by Constance Valis Hill – Brotherhood in Rhythm – The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers