Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly revolutionized dancing in cinema but there’s a duo out there that doesn’t exactly get the credit they deserve, The Nicholas Brothers.
What Fayard and Harold Nicholas did on screen is a feast for the eyes. Their dances on film will leave you speechless; they are the definition of a tough act to follow. To say The Nicholas Brothers were “tap dancers” undermines their legacy. The duo were highly innovative mixing tap, jazz, ballet and acrobatics into daring routines. Their jaw-dropping leaps, splits, and flips were performed so effortlessly as if gravity stopped just to watch them. What’s most impressive about the brothers is that they were self taught!
The brothers were in five films for 20th Century Fox during the 1940’s. Fred Astaire called their “Jumpin’ Jive” dance number in Stormy Weather, the greatest dance sequence in the history of film. In 1948, Gene Kelly himself handpicked the brothers to perform the “Be a Clown” number with him in his film, The Pirate. The two would later help Donald O’Connor in his iconic “Make ‘Em Laugh” dance from Singin’ in the Rain that was inspired by “Be a Clown.” O’Connor called them “the greatest dancers of all time.” But unfortunately these gravity-defying dances weren’t seen by all audiences. The studios simply didn’t know what to do with the brothers and they were often billed as “featured performers” in films so that their sequences could be cut for audiences in southern cities like Memphis. The brothers were never given their proper due by Hollywood due to racism.
They did have a number of successful tours for decades in Latin America, Europe, and Africa crossing all mediums. In their later years, they taught master classes a prestigious universities such as Harvard. Some of their students are legends in their own right: Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson.
When I watch The Nicholas Brothers onscreen in films such as Down Argentine Way and Orchestra Wives, a smile beams across my face but my heart also hurts. Talent should not be defined by race. It’s sad that the hatred from racism limited such beautiful talent from exceeding its potential. I often wonder what a film led by The Nicholas Brothers would look like and just how many incredible dance sequences we could have seen. Lucky for us, they live on in the films they were in. But we must continue to sing their praises so that their talents and contributions may never be forgotten.
Above is the first dance sequence I ever saw featuring The Nicholas Brothers. It’s from Down Argentine Way, one of my favorite Betty Grable musicals. During a test screening of the film, the audience cheered so much the film had to be rewound. The film launched both Grable and the brothers into international stardom.
The “Be a Clown” number from The Pirate. Legend has it that during rehearsal Harold Nicholas was just going through the motions and Gene Kelly accused him of not knowing the routine. Nicholas danced the whole routine, alone, full-out and flawlessly. Kelly was left speechless.