Together with his older brother Fayard Nicholas, African-American dancer Harold Nicholas became a major star of movies and stage performances during the 1930s. Considered among the top dancers in the world in any genre, by black and white performers alike, Nicholas also enjoyed a substantial solo career, part of it in Europe.
Harold Nicholas was born in March of 1921 (sources list birth dates of the 17th, 21st, and 27th) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but that city was just a stop along the road for his parents, who were touring jazz musicians. His father, Ulysses Nicholas, was a drummer, and his mother, Viola Harden Nicholas, was a pianist. The couple performed in and organized pit bands in African-American-oriented vaudeville theaters in various cities. By the time the family arrived in Philadelphia, Nicholas's older brother Fayard was showing talents of his own. Fayard was fascinated with the famous jazz and vaudeville dancers he met during his travels, among them Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. As early as age three, Nicholas sang with Fayard and their sister Dorothy in a trio called the Nicholas Kids.
The Nicholas brothers were quickly booked on a radio show, “The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour,” as well as at New York vaudeville theaters such as the Pearl, where they were spotted by the manager of the prestigious Lafayette Theater. They made their debut there in March of 1932 with an orchestra led by veteran ragtime and jazz pianist Eubie Blake, who then joined them in their first film appearance, in a short subject called “Pie, Pie Blackbird.” By the end of 1932, the brothers were playing regular gigs at the Cotton Club, a Harlem institution that showcased the latest in African-American trends before white audiences.
By 1936, the Nicholases were Broadway stars and bona fide celebrities; they appeared in the popular annual Ziegfeld Follies that year and nearly stole the show from such established stars as singer-actress Fanny Brice, dancer Josephine Baker, and comedian Bob Hope. This appearance propelled them to international prominence: they were signed to appear in a touring show called Blackbirds that visited several English cities, including London's famed West End theater district, in 1936 and 1937. While on tour, the brothers took in performances by European ballet companies and studied classical dance techniques. Although they were entirely self-taught, they were so skillful that many people they met assumed they had studied dance formally.
Ballet added a new ingredient to a style that was already unusual. In the words of New York Times contributor Jennifer Dunning, the Nicholas brothers’ “tap was an extraordinarily fluent blend of jazz, tap, ‘flash-act’ acrobatics, angular eccentric movement, black vernacular dance, and ballet. They themselves called their work ‘classical tap,’ not only because it incorporated elements of ballet but also because they danced with their whole bodies, including the often-neglected arms and hands.” As Harold Nicholas explained in an interview quoted in Jet, “We were tapdancers, but we put more style into it, more bodywork, instead of just footwork.” Their acrobatic prowess in dance routines was second to none. Back in the United States in 1937, ballet choreographer George Balanchine created a piece for the brothers as part of the musical Babes in Arms, in which Fayard Nicholas jumped over a line of chorus girls while Harold slid along the floor under their legs. It was a milestone in African-American dance, but still greater feats were to come.
Their movie career brought the Nicholas brothers before the wider American public. Harold Nicholas appeared in 36 films, including newsreels and short subjects, mostly with Fayard but increasingly often solo later in his career. In the 1934 film Kid Millions, the brothers appeared opposite singer-actor Eddie Cantor, who was wearing blackface makeup, one of many accepted practices of the day despite its demeaning racist aspects. In similar fashion, the brothers were cast as charming innocents. For a time they pursued film, stage, and nightclub gigs simultaneously; during the run of Babes in Arms, for example, they would perform during the show beginning at 8 p.m. and when the curtain dropped they would go to the Cotton Club for midnight and 2 a.m. sets.
The brothers’ dance routines reached in a new level beginning with the 1940 film Down Argentine Way, which joined their talents to those of choreographer Nick Castle and introduced Latin rhythms to their repertoire. After one of their dance numbers, audiences would applaud and whistle as if they were in a live theater until the projectionist rewound the film and showed the scene again. Twentieth Century-Fox signed the Nicholas brothers to a five-year contract on the strength of the film's performance, and several of their most famous films date from this period. In Stormy Weather (1943), which featured an all-black cast including a young Lena Horne, the Nicholases performed “Jumpin’ Jive,” a spectacular routine, while dressed in tailcoats and leapfrogged over each other while descending a staircase, danced on drums, and jumped over orchestra musicians.
Noted dancer and film star Fred Astaire rated “Jumpin’ Jive” as the greatest musical number he had ever seen filmed, and he considered the Nicholas brothers his tap heroes. The brothers, in turn, were compared to Astaire, but they rarely had the chance to perform the big romantic numbers that were the specialties of Astaire and other white dancers. As African-American artists, the Nicholases were subject to various restrictions: they could not appear on screen with their white co-stars, could generally not speak on film, and had to have their scenes designed so that they could easily be cut for distribution in the American South. White dancer Gene Kelly broke the color line when he appeared on screen with the Nicholases in the 1948 film The Pirate.
In 1941 the Nicholas brothers appeared with actress Dorothy Dandridge in the musical Sun Valley Serenade, and the following year Harold Nicholas and Dandridge were married. They had a mentally challenged daughter and divorced in 1949. The following year, Harold moved to France, where he lived for the next 15 years and became fluent in several languages. Making his home base in Paris, he toured extensively in both Europe and North Africa. During a trip to Africa he met and married Elyanne Patronne, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce after producing one child, son Melih. Arriving in France, Nicholas appeared in the 1963 film L’empire de la nuit and recorded several albums as a singer.
Films about the history of jazz dance safeguarded the Nicholases’ legacy. Footage of their routines was included in the 1974 anthology That's Entertainment!, along with that of Astaire, Kelly, Bing Crosby, and other stars. The 1985 dance documentary That's Dancing also featured the brothers’ work, and Harold Nicholas appeared in 1989's Tap as an aging tap dancer still able to outdo younger artists. Both brothers credited actor Gregory Hines for introducing the art of tap dancing to a new generation. Harold had a supporting role in the 1990 film The Five Heartbeats, about a fictitious R&B group, and the following decade brought the brothers several major awards, including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1991 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
Harold Nicholas remained active through most of his life, appearing in several productions of Sophisticated Ladies and the 1995 comedy Funny Bone in the last years of his career. In 1988 he told Dunning that he could still do the splits for which he was famous, but that she should not “plural it too much.” In 1979, Nicholas met Rigmor Alfredsson Newman; she became his manager and then his wife, and they were still married at his death from heart failure on July 3, 2000, in New York City.
Hill, Constance Vallis, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, Cooper Square, 2002.
Dance Magazine, October 2001, p. 55.
Ebony, May 1991, p. 88.
Guardian (London, England), July 8, 2000, p. 22; October 6, 2016.
Jet, July 24, 2000, p. 36.
New York Times, March 28, 1988; May 28, 1988; July 4, 2000, p. B7; March 31, 2001, p. B8.
Fayard Nicholas website, http://www.nicholasbrothers.com/ (November 27, 2016).❑