The best popular dancers of this century stand out for their signature styles. Fred Astaire brought effortless grace to every step, Cyd Charisse swept elegantly across the stage, and Gene Kelly radiated charm. When it comes to the Nicholas Brothers, a single scene from the 1940 film Down Argentine Way speaks for itself: They enter dressed in spotless eveningwear and start tapping at a clean clip, every part of their bodies engaged in motion. Before you know it, Harold and Fayard Nicholas are turning cartwheels and flips, landing in the splits, and moonwalking before Michael Jackson was ever the Thriller. They always return, then, to a perfect tempo, nary a thread out of place--a flawless marriage of flash and control. Such moments have led other master movers like Mikhail Baryshnikov to say, "They are probably the most amazing dancers I've seen. Those guys are perfect examples of pure genius."
Few people can say "Show business is my life" without sounding a bit cornball, but at 85 years old, Fayard Nicholas is simply stating a fact. As the elder half of the duo who tapped their way through Harlem's hottest nightclubs, Broadway, Hollywood, and the world, Fayard is the consummate entertainer. And so it should be little surprise that he sounds eager to reunite with his brother onstage this Sunday night during the Tappin' in the Twin Cities: Real Legends of Tap concert at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.
Interviewed by telephone at the Motion Picture and Television Country House, a retirement home in Woodland Hills near Los Angeles, Nicholas shares the story of his life in the spotlight. And he jokes about how he and his brother have finally received some props over the past decade, in the form of a Kennedy Center Honor and a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame; next year they'll receive a special Oscar.
It was the 13-year-old Fayard's idea to pull together an act with Harold (who was just 7 at the time), and in 1930 they stormed the stage in Philadelphia as the Nicholas Kids. "I always liked show business," recalls Nicholas, whose parents played in the Standard Theater Orchestra at the time (mom on piano, dad on drums) accompanying stars like Louis Armstrong, Buck and Bubbles, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. "Before I became a professional entertainer I always went to the theater where my parents played, and I liked what I saw onstage," Nicholas recalls. "I taught myself how to perform. Never had a lesson. Then I taught my brother." Over the years, however, Harold developed unique skills of his own. "He sings in five languages," brags Nicholas. "And he knows exactly what he's singing!"
It didn't take long for the youngsters to get noticed in New York's big venues, not to mention on Broadway, where they performed in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms among other shows. "First we were at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, then the manager of the Cotton Club wanted us to be in a show," recounts Nicholas, adding that his parents gave up their orchestra gigs to oversee the boys' skyrocketing career. "Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bill Robinson--they were all there. And Lena Horne was a chorus girl," he continues. "Nobody wanted to follow us. We were the showstopper. The audience just wanted more and more."
One evening, says Nicholas, Calloway called the brothers on to the stage after learning that Harold liked to imitate him. "He said, 'You do me,' to my brother. And my brother said, 'I'll do "Minnie the Moocher,"' and the microphone came down from the ceiling, but my brother could not reach it. So the waiter brought out a table and Cab lifted my brother up onto it. He started saying, 'Hi dee hi dee ho' and soon everyone was saying it. Cab was beaming. We had to do it every night after that."
The Nicholas Brothers' popularity grew, and they continued tapping with nearly impossible skill, performing numerous encores and generally wearing themselves out. "When we first started out in Philadelphia, we'd just dance and dance. Oh jeepers!" he exclaims. "The audience would finally let us go. But we said, 'Something has to be done! Let's talk to the people, let's do singing, let's play the drums.' So we opened up with a dance, not too strenuous, and then my brother would sing a song like 'Lady Be Good.' I would then direct the orchestra with my hand, my elbows, my teeth. The audience loved it. Then we'd close with a big dance. We were versatile, we could do so much."
Hollywood also welcomed the brothers, and the studios cast the hot-footed East Coast hoofers in numerous films. In the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, for example, the young men were reunited with fellow Cotton Club performers Horne, Calloway, and Robinson (as well as Fats Waller and another dance icon, Katherine Dunham). It's a period Nicholas remembers fondly, and he is dismayed that the brothers' work was satirized by two characters called "Flash" and "Grin" in Savion Glover's Broadway hit Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. "Don't try to bring the Nicholas Brothers or Hollywood down," says Nicholas, his jovial tone turning serious. "He was saying the studios used us. But we could do what we wanted to do. There was no dictator. Why bring us down? We are the ones who made it possible for them to be where they are today."
While Nicholas is quick to defend his experiences, he also recognizes that tap has evolved significantly over the course of his 70-year career. "It's a different type of dance today. When my brother and I were doing movies and stage, we would always wear nice tails and tuxedos, real sharp. We had class and personality. We practiced and rehearsed. The dancers today improvise. They just think about their feet. We used our bodies and our hands." He adds with a knowing chuckle, "When young dancers of today see these old films, they are amazed. 'Oh, Mr. Nicholas,' they say. 'I've never seen anything like that. How do you do that?'" He seems to shrug over the phone. "We were the pioneers."
Still, Nicholas sees hope for the next generation in the form of granddaughters Nicole and Cathy (ages 13 and 11) who perform as--what else?--the Nicholas Sisters. They will deliver a Nicholas Brothers routine on Sunday. And as for the original Nicholas Brother? "I'm a little under the weather, but I still have a sense of humor," he says, just two days before flying off to an engagement in Sweden. "I'm still rolling along. I'll do a little shim sham shimmy, but I can't do what I used to do. I'd be crazy if I tried to do a split now. My mind says I can do it, but my body says no way!"
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.