"They are great tap dancers--by which we mean that they are masters of timing and ministers of grace" is the way The New Yorker describes the Nicholas Brothers. They were also the most astonishing acrobatic dance team of both stage and screen.
In that exhilarating hybrid know as acrobatic dancing, wherein dancers interrupt balletic jazz routines with fearless and often improvised acrobatic feats, no individual or group surpassed the effect that the Nicholas Brothers had on audiences and on other dancers. Together they dazzled the country--from Harlem nightclubs to Broadway to Hollywood.
Born of showbiz parents who played in a pit orchestra in Philadelphia, the boys spent their early years seeing all the famous black entertainers of the 1920s. But they were as impressed with the acrobats at the circus as they were by the great dancers of the era. They watched, they imitated, and soon they were an act in their own right. They were an immediate success in Philadelphia and their reputation traveled fast. By 1932, they were performing at the legendary Cotton Club with the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, singing a little and dancing a lot, elegantly dressed in top hats and tails. Harold was 11, Fayard was 18.
Two years later they were in Hollywood and for several decades alternated between movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, television, and extensive tours of Latin America, Africa, and Europe.
"When we perform," said Fayard, describing a Nicholas Brothers performance, "it's with style, grace, class, and personality, and we call our style 'classical tap.' The body is in complete unity, including the hands. We are singers, dancers, actors, and musicians. We have done everything in show business except opera." Of all their rousing routines--tapping up a double staircase and sliding down their steps in Stormy Weather; climbing up a wall for two full steps followed by a backflip into a split in Orchestra Wives; Fayard leaping over a line of chorus girls while Harold slid under their legs in Babes in Arms, which was choreographed by George Balanchine--one routine became their specialty, best seen in Stormy Weather: jumping into splits over each other's heads. "You just about go crazy from the sheer aesthetic excitement of what they are doing," said The New Yorker in 1988. "Their virtuosity remains unrivaled."
More recently, that style of electrifying, scene-stealing choreography was nearly extinct, although Harold Nicholas continued to appear in concert as a solo performer and starred in the films Tap and The Five Heartbeats. But through the classic film performances of the Nicholas Brothers, the acknowledged masters of classical tap, that part of uniquely American dance history will live on forever.