Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin Jive” climax in “Stormy Weather” (see 10/9 post) the greatest tap dance number ever filmed. Balanchine and Barishnikov also claimed them as among their top picks as greatest dancers ever. Gregory Hines said that if they ever made a biopic about them they’d have to use computer generated effects since nobody could possibly copy them.
So who were these Nicholas Brothers? Fayard Nicholas (his first name sounds like the birth certificate guy at the hospital mis-heard a different name–perhaps “Theodore”?) and Harold Nicholas (his younger brother) were self-taught show-biz kids from the south, first watching dancers perform in vaudeville shows in Philadelphia during the 1920’s in which their father played drums and their mother played piano. Fayard got the idea of putting together an act. Harold went along with it. Somehow, they developed their own extraordinary style–part tap, part swing. part eccentric dancing, part acrobatic, a little Charleston and a lot of hip-hop (sixty years before the term was coined).
Their appearences in movies are all too few, but each is a delight and never less than breathtaking. Fayard lived into his nineties–he died last year– still choreographing, lecturing, keeping the art of tap alive. Harold died in the 1990’s. Below is my nomination for SECOND GREATEST TAP-DANCE NUMBER EVER FILMED (first, of course, going to “Jumping Jive”…). This is the title song from the 1941 Fox musical, “Down Argentine Way.” (Don’t be thrown by the Spanish–?–narration at the beginning. It goes away in a heartbeat). Things to look for: the weird way Fayard “controls” Harold’s space–playing him as if he’s a puppet-master…the jumping over the hankercheif trick…and of course, that outrageously exciting last chorus.