Fred Astaire said it was ‘the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film’. In a dance performance for the ages, the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000), dazzled audiences with their acrobatic routine to Cab Calloway’s hit song, Jumpin’ Jive. Not only that, but the routine was unrehearsed and what you see was the first take!
The performance was from the 1943 musical film, Stormy Weather. In 2001, Stormy Weather was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
For a great summary of the Nicholas Brothers’ style and impact on dance, see the article below the video.
“Most jazz tap-dancers stand up and dance. The Nicholas Brothers did that — and then they flew, catapulting themselves over each other’s heads, step by step down a staircase, or running up a wall and uncoiling backward into thin air. Perhaps you’ve seen them on television retrospectives of Hollywood, in film clips of movies like ”Down Argentine Way” (1940) or ”The Pirate” (1948). More often than not, they would touch down from such feats in a split — and not just any old kind either: a true balletic split, with the back as well as the front knees straightened. And then, unbelievably, they would rise without using their hands and do it all again, timing their feats in perfect synchrony to each other, yet in teasing counterpoint to the ingratiatingly danceable music by Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Lunceford, Cab Calloway or even the somewhat intractable be-bop of Dizzy Gillespie. The splits were tough, but, for them, keeping their pristine evening wear (tails, usually) pristine was even tougher.
For it wasn’t the acrobatics, in themselves, that made the Nicholas brothers the Nicholas Brothers. It was the overall beauty and musicality of the entire dance. Their achievement was in the how — the way Fayard would deploy his hands, as graceful as Fred Astaire’s; the way Harold would make every silhouette superclear; the genial, noncompetitive way each brother would cede the floor to the other for a solo, passing the dance like a baton, in musical time. When Astaire pronounced their ”Jumpin’ Jive” number in the movie ”Stormy Weather” (1943) — unrehearsed and achieved on the first take — to be the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film, he was not commending the acrobatics alone but rather the way the brothers erupted organically out of their tap steps, like a series of overlapping geysers that, simply to look at, project an observer into a stratosphere of elation.
”Brotherhood in Rhythm” tells how they did it. Patiently, accurately, warmly and quite intelligibly, Constance Valis Hill guides the reader through the Nicholas brothers’ career, number by number, positioning them within both white and black theatrical traditions, which she authoritatively delineates, and evaluating the brothers against their peers and colleagues, both in New York (the Berry Brothers, Coles and Atkins) and in Hollywood (Astaire, Bill Robinson, Gene Kelly). Hill — a dancer and choreographer as well as a dance historian — shows, step by step, measure by measure, how the brothers built their dances, framing intricate rhythm-tap solos and bravura movement in unison and subtly articulating an infectiously charming tone of teasing camaraderie in their stage relationship. She is revelatory about the Olympian degree of intelligence and wit in the choreography that Fayard, the elder brother by seven years, made for the pair over decades, and she analyzes, to the eyelashes, the differences between Fayard’s innate musicality and grace and Harold’s meltingly winsome abilities to mimic his elder brother.
Although Hill includes some information along the way about their offstage lives, it is only enough to let the reader appreciate their onstage circumstances. This is not a chronicle of individuals: to find out the details of Harold’s unhappy marriage to Dorothy Dandridge, say, you will have to consult Donald Bogle’s recent life of the actress. Hill’s work is something rarer than a chronicle of a life: it is a biography of artistic choices over time, the kind of study that makes a case for why its subjects should be worth a traditional biographer’s attention in the first place.
An outstanding researcher, with access to a treasury of home movies owned by the Nicholas family, Hill recreates the theatrical milieus in which the brothers operated, like the Standard Theater in Philadelphia, where their parents were co-directors of the pit orchestra, and the Cotton Club in Harlem, where the brothers worked with Duke Ellington. She takes you to Broadway, where they worked with Josephine Baker and George Balanchine, who invented their signature maneuver of sliding, in full split, through a tunnel of chorus girls’ parted legs and who, Hill argues, reinforced ”certain elements in the Nicholases’ style that had already been developing, such as their full-bodied extensions, air work, gracefulness, speed and precision.” Hill is especially revealing on Hollywood, where, in the 1940’s, the brothers worked at 20th Century Fox with the director Nick Castle, who invented the run-up-the-wall-into-a-back-flip-with-split landing for Harold, years before Donald O’Connor became famous for a similar display in ”Singin’ in the Rain.” Castle also enlarged their dance vocabulary with movements from classical ballet, which they never formally studied.
For the Nicholas Brothers, Castle proved an oasis in what seems to have been a hardscrabble landscape. Despite their extraordinary talent and star potential, the brothers never starred in a movie, and only once were they permitted to dance with a woman — Dandridge, in the enchanting ”Chattanooga Choo Choo” number from ”Sun Valley Serenade” (1941). In Hollywood, segregation imposed itself most powerfully on their careers, and eventually it diminished them. Unlike their white peers, the brothers had little control over any aspect of their film performances, apart from the dancing itself. Indeed, at one point, the director Irving Cummings wanted to cut away from their dance in ”Stormy Weather,” as if it were filler, and studio chiefs routinely dropped the brothers’ numbers from pictures when they were distributed in Southern states. The one time they let a number go through into Southern distribution, in ”Down Argentine Way,” white audiences as well as black audiences went wild. ”In a small town in Texas,” Hill writes, ”the local newspaper informed its readers of how many minutes into the film the Nicholas Brothers appeared; townsfolk arrived at the theater minutes before the scene, stood and cheered while watching it, and left soon after it was over.”
None of this much mattered. In 1945, for reasons that Hill traces directly to the studio’s racism and cowardice during a postwar period of black protest, Fox dropped the Nicholas Brothers altogether, at the height of their powers. The dancers continued to perform, both together and separately, in stage shows and on television, although the big band music of the 30’s and early 40’s, so closely identified with their dancing, slipped out of fashion. Troupers, they carried on with the same elegance and panache, even in theatrical situations that were so confining they could not do their best.
And the best — the uncompromising integrity of performance — was key to the magic of the Nicholas Brothers. A few of their signature moves are reproduced by hip-hoppers today, and they just look like stunts strung together. The dance continuity is gone, and with it goes the wonder.
Hill suggests that the rhythm dancing the Nicholas Brothers practiced was ”classical” dance, not in the sense that it was balletic — although even Balanchine was surprised to learn that the brothers had never studied ballet — but rather that, like classical ballet, it required arduous practice and craft and that, in its purest version, it had no story to tell apart from the story of its own unfolding. The standard of excellence that these brothers upheld, and the joy their dancing brought to mass audiences, are in short supply today. The artistry of the Nicholas Brothers had real grace, and in a life that is becoming increasingly virtual, we need that more than ever.”
Mindy Aloff is the dance critic for The New Republic.