The extraordinary acrobatic dancing of the Nicholas Brothers enlivened musical films in the 1940s, and offscreen they were also considered one of the best tandem tap teams of the century with major careers in musical theater. The children of pit orchestra musicians, they were influenced by the up-tempo early jazz of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Both were coached by performers on the black vaudeville circuit who appeared at their parents' theater in Philadelphia. They adopted the tandem tap style, then epitomized by Buck and Bubbles, emphasizing synchronization of movements in complicated rhythms. They ended with "flash" sequences, including their signature leaps over each other in full, stretched-out side splits. They moved to New York and appeared in revues at Harlem's hottest nightclub, the Cotton Club, through the 1930s, where they were influenced by both the music and the personal style of Cotton Club orchestra leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Like Calloway and Ellington, they were featured in shorts, soundies, and early sound films, including Vitaphone shorts such as Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), featuring the composer Eubie Blake, and the Eddie Cantor comedy Kid Millions (1934). Their Hollywood roles were sequences in feature films that could be cut for the segregated markets in the South. They worked with Cotton Club dance directors Nick Castle and Geneva Sawyer, who had relocated to Twentieth Century Fox for a series of seven backstage musicals featuring jazz. In each film the brothers added spatial elements to the tandem and flash dances. They enlivened their splits sequence in
Orchestra Wives (with the Glen Miller Orchestra, 1942) by adding runs up walls and flipping over themselves and each other. Their best-remembered variation is in the black all-star revue Stormy Weather (1943): in tribute to co-star Bill Robinson, whose specialty was tapping up and down staircases, the Nicholas Brothers restaged their signature moves down successive stairs.
They continued to tour with jazz ensembles, moving from the big band sound to bebop, and to appear on stage, notably in the musical St. Louis Woman in 1946. Harold Nicholas appeared as an actor in Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and other movie comedies. They received Kennedy Center honors in 1981 and are recognized as a major influence on later tap dancers such as Gregory Hines, Maurice Hines, and Savion Glover. The Nicholas Brothers, with the Copasetics and other greats of their generation, were featured in the documentary short Tapdancin' (1981) and the feature film Tap (1989), and are the subjects of the documentary The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance (1992).
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