'He had something very rare -- class'

When Fayard Nicholas danced, his body knew instinctively what to do—whether it was tap, ballet or his signature, high-in-the-air full split.

Teamed with his brother, Harold, Nicholas moved with a natural grace and athleticism that inspired generations of dancers, from Fred Astaire to Maurice and Gregory Hines to Savion Glover.

Nicholas (91), who died on Tuesday at his home from pneumonia and other complications of a stroke, was “the greatest all-round dancer I have ever seen”, Maurice Hines said on Wednesday. “He could do anything.”

“Fayard knew about line,” Hines added. “Without taking ballet training, he had that gift of doing moves without knowing what they were.
Plus, he had something that’s very rare today—he had class.”

“My dad put heaven on hold and now they can begin the show,” Nicholas’s son, Tony, said Wednesday.

Nicholas’s career took off at age 18, when he and his 11-year-old brother became the featured act at New York’s famed Cotton Club in 1932. The Nicholas Brothers were the only black performers allowed to mingle with the white celebrity patrons. Despite the racial hurdles facing black performers, they went on to Broadway and then Hollywood.

“I don’t think that audiences ever looked at them as African-American. I think they just looked at them as great talents,” Tony Nicholas said. “And as a result, that’s why they became so loved.”

Tap dancer Rusty Frank, who set up an emergency fund to help pay some of Nicholas’s hospital bills after his stroke, said Nicholas had a unique style that changed the face of tap dance.

“He and his brother, they didn’t just use their feet to dance, they used their whole bodies. And it had an electrifying quality,” she said. “They used ballet, they used jazz, they used acrobatics ... They combined it all.”

Astaire once told the brothers that the acrobatic elegance and synchronicity of the “Jumpin’ Jive” dance sequence in Stormy Weather (1943) made it the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen.

In the number from the all-black musical starring Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the brothers tap across music stands in an orchestra with the fearless exuberance of children stone-hopping across a pond. In the finale, they leapfrog seamlessly down a sweeping staircase, performing incredible splits.

Their polished urbanity and classic good looks made the Nicholas brothers film stars despite the celluloid segregation that relegated them to non-speaking parts and dance sequences that could be easily cut for racially squeamish audiences in the South. Their dance routines were featured in such movies as Down Argentine Way (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). 

They finally danced with a white star, Gene Kelly, in their last film together, 1948’s The Pirate.

“If you were black, you experienced [prejudice],” Harold Nicholas said. “It wasn’t a real horrible thing for us; we went through it.”

As children, the brothers were vaudeville brats who toured with their musician parents, with Fayard stealing dance steps as they went along and teaching them to his brother.

“We were tap dancers, but we put more style into it, more bodywork, instead of just footwork,” Harold Nicholas recalled in a 1987 interview.

Harold, who died in 2000, once said of his older brother’s dancing: “He was like a poet ... talking to you with his hands and feet.”

Their trademark no-hands splits—in which they not only went down but sprang back up again without using their hands for balance—left film audiences wide-eyed. The legendary choreographer George Balanchine called it ballet, despite their lack of formal training.

“My brother and I used our whole bodies, our hands, our personalities and everything,” Fayard Nicholas told television station KCET in 2005. “We tried to make it classic. We called our type of dancing classical tap and we just hoped the audience liked it.”

Fayard, born in 1914, and Harold, born in 1921, learned to dance watching vaudeville shows while their parents played in the orchestra pit.

“One day at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia, I looked on stage and I thought, ‘They’re having fun up there; I’d like to do something like that,’” Fayard once recalled.

“We worked up an act called ‘The Nicholas Kids’, and did it in the living room. Our father said: ‘When you’re dancing, don’t look at your feet, look at the audience. You’re not entertaining yourself, you’re entertaining the audience.’”

The brothers were good enough by 1928 to debut in vaudeville. In 1932, they made their film debut in the short Pie Pie Blackbird, and were booked at the Cotton Club as “The Show Stoppers!”. It became their base.

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn spotted them at the club and cast them in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions (1934).

In later years, Harold did solo work in Europe and then returned to Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid and Sophisticated Ladies and to film in Uptown Saturday Night (1974). Fayard won a Tony Award in 1989 for his choreography of Black and Blue, and the brothers were awarded Kennedy Centre Honours in 1991.

Up until his stroke, Fayard continued to tap dance and speak at dance festivals around the world.

Nicholas’s last movie appearance was in the comedy Hard Four, released last year.

In addition to his son Tony, and his wife, Katherine Hopkins-Nicholas, he is survived by another son, Paul; a sister, Dorothy Nicholas Morrow of Los Angeles; four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.—- Sapa-AP

Associated Press drama writer Michael Kuchwara contributed to this report

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