LOS ANGELES – Fayard Nicholas, who with his brother Harold wowed the tap dancing world with their astonishing athleticism and inspired generations of dancers, from Fred Astaire to Savion Glover, has died. He was 91.
Nicholas died Tuesday at his home from pneumonia and other complications of a stroke, his son Tony Nicholas said.
"My dad put heaven on hold and now they can begin the show," the younger Nicholas said Wednesday.
The Nicholas brothers were still boys when they were featured at New York's Cotton Club in 1932. Though young, they were billed as "The Show Stoppers!" And despite the racial hurdles facing black performers, they went on to Broadway, then Hollywood.
Astaire once told the brothers that the acrobatic elegance and synchronicity of their "Jumpin' Jive" dance sequence in "Stormy Weather" (1943) made it the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen. In the number, the brothers tap across music stands in an orchestra with the fearless exuberance of children stone-hopping across a pond. In the finale, they leap-frog seamlessly down a sweeping staircase.
Tap dancer Rusty Frank, who set up an emergency fund to help pay some of Nicholas' 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."
The two were vaudeville brats who toured with their musician parents, Fayard stealing dance steps as they went along and teaching them to his brother, who was seven years younger.
"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 dancing betrayed not only creative genius but the athletic marvel of what no one else would dare attempt.
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 said in an interview last year. "We tried to make it classic. We called our type of dancing classical tap and we just hoped the audience liked it."
The great dancer and actor Gregory Hines, who died in 2003 at age 57, once said that if a film were ever made about their lives, the dance numbers would have to be computer-generated because nobody could duplicate them.
Fayard, born in 1914, and Harold, born in 1921, learned to dance watching vaudeville shows while their parents played in the pit orchestra.
"One day at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia, I looked onstage and I thought, 'They're having fun up there; I'd like to do something like that'," Fayard recalled in a 1999 interview.
"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, which became their base. They were allowed to mingle with the white celebrity patrons before going home to bed at 5 or 6 a.m. They would sleep until 3 p.m., when their daily tutoring began, then return to the club by chauffeur-driven limousine for the first show at midnight. Fayard was 18, Harold 11.
Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn spotted them at the club and cast them in the Eddie Cantor musical "Kid Millions" (1934).
Their polished urbanity and classic good looks made them 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. They finally danced with a white star, Gene Kelly, in their last film together, "The Pirate" in 1948.
"If you were black, you experienced (prejudice)," Harold Nicholas once said. "It wasn't a real horrible thing for us; we went through it."
In later years, Harold did solo work in Europe, 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 Center Honors in 1991.
The two remained close throughout their lives, despite their different personalities. Fayard was known as the more outgoing of the two, the one whose optimism kept the act afloat. Harold was more withdrawn and introspective.
Both brothers had tumultuous personal lives. Harold admitted that his first marriage, to famed actress Dorothy Dandridge, collapsed because of his relentless womanizing. Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for a best-actress Oscar, died of a drug overdose in 1965 at 42.
In an interview for A & E's Biography in 1999, Fayard said wistfully, "I tried to be a good husband and father. ... I don't know what happened."
But he remained on good terms with his first wife, Geraldine, and by all accounts, had a long and happy marriage to his second wife, the late Barbara January. He married dancer Katherine Hopkins in 2000.