Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers
“The most amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life...ever.” So said Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself something of an authority on the subject, about Fayard and Harold Nicholas. With their “full-bodied dancing”—frenzied combinations of gravity-defying leaps into bone-breaking splits—the Nicholas Brothers amazed everyone who saw them onstage or in films. Equally astounding, they began their career in the late ’20s and were still dancing 60 years later. Since mother Viola played piano and father Ulysses played drums in pit orchestras of black vaudeville theaters, it would seem that rhythm and melody were ingrained in the boys from birth.
Inspired by the wild splits of dancer Jack Wiggins, teenaged Fayard went home and discovered he could go one better. Not only could he go all the way down, but he could come back up—without using his hands. Teaching the moves to Harold, seven years younger, the pair devised an act filled with feats of acrobatic impossibility.
When their sons’ talent became clear, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas insisted that they would be strictly professionals, not allowing them to enter amateur contests. Bookings came easily, and the family soon moved to New York, where the brothers quickly became fixtures at the Cotton Club. They were “the heroes of young people,” Max Roach is quoted as saying. The success of the act meant custom-made clothes and a chauffeur/ valet. But these trappings were the reflections of the family’s class, not affectations. Viola would complain when movie directors asked her boys to speak in anything less than the proper English she taught them. In the Eddie Cantor film Kid Millions, she demanded that Harold say, “May I keep the quarter,” and not “Can I keep the quarter.” Not all such battles were won. In the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms, the producers kept demanding that they stick to insulting stereotypical dialect.
It would seem natural to describe the Nicholas’ high-flying act as “flashy,” though author Hill works hard to distinguish their art from what she perceives as a pejorative term. “To discern what is ‘classical’ about the Nicholas Brothers’ dancing,” she writes, “it is first necessary to inquire about the nature of classical dance...” And inquire Hill does. She begins the book centuries ago, spending the first chapter tracing the history of jazz dancing, from its roots in Irish jigs and West African gioube through minstrel shows to early Broadway theater.
A dancer, choreographer and teacher, the author shows little interest in the offstage lives of her subjects. We learn in a short parenthetical sentence that Fayard had married. Fifteen-year-old Harold going AWOL from a London performance to visit a girl in France is similarly glossed over. But every move that the brothers’ feet made is fully documented. Hill apparently had access to Nicholas family home movies—which were often of the boys dancing—and watched their many film appearances. Each routine is dissected and analyzed step-by-step, in dance-jargon detail. A glossary is provided. Non-dancers may find all the technical talk tedious. After all, the Nicholas brothers were supremely visual, fast and fun. Still, while the Nicholas brothers appeared in many movies, they never made a “Nicholas Brothers film.” Unlike the arguably less attractive Fred Astaire, the brothers were never given their full due by the entertainment industry. This book is a start at rectifying matters.