For me the dancing Nicholas Brothers always seemed to be the spice in the broth of 1940s movie musicals, the cherry on Fred Astaire's smooth frosting, the piquancy in Gene Kelly's homey stews. Although sometimes uncredited, the brothers were always unforgettable, either launching bounding backflips into anatomy-defying splits (Orchestra Wives, 1942), sliding down massive staircases (Stormy Weather, 1943), or leap-frogging over a line of chorus girls (Babes in Arms, Broadway). More than acrobats, however, they tempered their flash steps with smooth, sophisticated stylishness and a welcoming mien.
After their early superstardom at the Cotton Club, they stepped over to Broadway, performing in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. Shortly thereafter, the brothers moved to Hollywood, filming eye-popping routines in, among others, Down Argentine Way (1940), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), and The Pirate (1948). For several decades they alternated among every performance medium of the 20th century.
Everything they did looked both easy and improbable. It certainly wasn't a result of formal training. Elder brother Fayard (born in 1914) taught himself steps by watching the vaudeville acts at the theatre where his parents were pit musicians, then taught them to Harold (born in 1921). But like any great artists, the brothers took the greatest elements of the artists before them and made them even greater. The raw steps of vaudeville here became high art, the base jazz rhythms became chic in the pair's rapid-fire footwork.
The soigné Nicholases, often attired in white tie and tails, exemplified onscreen joy. Their signature included a quick fanning of their fingers—a punctuation mark at the end of licks, an exclamation point to further express their exuberance.
The brothers looked racism in the face, turned, and stepped around it, graciously beating it by dancing better than anyone else. They never took roles they didn't want, they went where they were welcomed, and eventually they became welcomed everywhere.
In the mid-1980s, with a resurgence of interest in rhythm tap, the brothers drew worshipful dancers to master classes across the country. I took an afternoon session with Fayard in a class he called Style and Flair. His wife Barbara didn't want him to dance, but when she slipped out of the room momentarily, he seized the opportunity to set aside his walking cane and demonstrate his routines. His turns were steady, his taps clean and mellow. He emphasized the use of hands, his own unfolding powerfully to sparkle after a quick series of steps.
In July 2000 the brothers were scheduled for a Los Angeles appearance, including classes and an onstage tribute. Fayard was living here, but Harold was to make the trip from New York. As we gathered for class, the news spread that Harold had died. Fayard came to teach anyway. Later in the week he performed solo—the first time in his life he was forced to do so, a photograph of Harold watching him from upstage. The splits were long gone, the flash steps a memory. But the joy of dancing, performing, entertaining the crowd visibly filled him to those fingertips he so emphasized.
I never asked Fayard if those splits hurt. I think I never wanted to know.