The Brothers Tap

The S.F. Jazz Festival pays tribute to Fayard and Harold Nicholas

It was 1943 when, at the height of the war effort, 20th Century-Fox released Stormy Weather, a full-length musical salute to African-American soldiers. The studio hired the best actors, the best dancers, and the best musicians. The star, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, was already 65, but he danced like a man half his age. Fats Waller played "Ain't Misbehavin' " as if he were the soul of jazz; and Cab Calloway's powerhouse band swung their hit "The Jumpin' Jive" while Calloway reigned supreme over the whole scene in zoot-suited elegance.

All of this was to be expected from such world-renowned artists, but the surprise of the film was a show-stopping performance by the Nicholas Brothers, two young men who were far less well-known than the rest of the cast. Near the end of the movie, in the middle of Calloway's "Jive," they sprang out of the crowd, danced on table tops, and leapfrogged each other into full splits. For their finale, they danced to the head of a staircase, slid down opposite sides in splits, and rose for applause at the bottom. The sheer physical ability is still astounding and slightly painful to watch.

Harold and Fayard Nicholas, who will perform with other great hoofers like Donald O'Connor and Bunny Briggs in the S.F. Jazz Festival's "Jazz Tap Summit" at the Paramount Theater Friday night, were anonymous for years, but, like other great pioneers of tap, they developed and transformed black vernacular dance and therefore jazz itself.

Tap dance is one of those many art forms (like jazz itself) that are often called America's only original contribution to the arts. Tap is specifically the dance equivalent of instrumental jazz; like jazz, it brings together disparate elements from both African and European culture, grafting African movement and rhythm onto Irish clogging. It goes back to the African dancing and drumming that took place in New Orleans' Congo Square and forward to the remarkable contemporary work of Savion Glover in the Broadway production of Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, which traces the development of African-American culture through tap dance.

Tap and jazz have always traded leads; developments in jazz change the dance and vice versa. The aforementioned Bill Robinson danced on his toes and turned the basic time step into an art form as he moved gracefully up and down stairs both with and without famous co-star Shirley Temple. (At that time the only way that blacks and whites could dance together was to have a comfortable half-century difference in age.) Then John Bubbles, backed by his piano-playing partner, Buck Washington, added the use of heels to create the more syncopated form of rhythm tap. In the 1940s, dancers like Baby Laurence and Bunny Briggs responded to the new, complex rhythms of bebop with the paddle and roll style.

This competitive milieu -- there were child prodigies, dazzling flash (acrobatic) acts, even one-legged virtuosos --spawned the Nicholas Brothers in the 1930s. By the time Fayard was 10 years old, he had seen and outdanced every headliner at the black vaudeville theater in Philadelphia where his parents led the pit band. In the meantime he secretly taught his 4-year-old brother, Harold, both tap and acrobatics. When the two of them finally danced for their parents, Mom and Dad retired from performing to manage the kids' career.

In 1932, the pair began a two-year run at Harlem's Cotton Club. They worked with all the famous big bands, appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, and began making an incredible string of movies that document the development of their prodigious talent. At first, their routines were featured in short films or embedded within the plots of comedies starring Eddie Cantor and Burns & Allen. But then they toured England in 1937, and when they returned to the States in 1938 they worked with choreographer George Balanchine on Broadway in Babes in Arms.

Their most lucrative period came under contract with Fox; they began a series of films with Down Argentine Way in 1940 and ended with Stormy Weather in 1943. Working with imaginative choreographer Nick Castle, their elaborate production numbers captured the feeling of jazz in routines that only the Nicholas Brothers could execute. (Down Argentine Way features a supreme example: The brothers dance up a wall, backflip into splits, and come up exactly on the beat.)

Although that period earned the Nicholas Brothers a reputation as a flash act, the two are equally esteemed as straight tap dancers. Fayard's graceful, almost Balinese, hand gestures are considered the most beautiful of all tap dancers (including Fred Astaire). Harold, who always defers to his big brother, is just as elegant.

In the last 50 years -- with dwindling opportunities for any tap dancers -- they've toured the world, worked Vegas with Sammy Davis Jr., and appeared sporadically in films and on Broadway. Today, tap is often perceived as a dying art form, a novelty. The halcyon days from 1920 to 1950, when big bands played for this odd, wonderful, and instantly accessible dance, are surely gone -- we no longer live in a culture where everyone can do a simple time step or, for that matter, where street-corner tap jam sessions and cutting contests break out in black neighborhoods.

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