Go Deeper

Jaye Allison Taps Into the Nicholas Brothers’ Philly Roots

Posted July 6th, 2010

Recently I was introduced to the sensational moves of the Nicholas Brothers, a world famous tap-dancing duo from a time when it was difficult for African-American artists to cross over, who got their start in Philadelphia. Last Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Harold Nicholas’ death, and I spoke with Philly tap dancer and founder of the annual tap festival Philly Tap Challenge, Jaye Allison, about their legacy and the future of Philly tap.

Jay dreams of creating a mural for tap dancing at Broad and South. She calls that corner the hub of tap in the 20s and 30s, and that’s where dance duo the Nicholas Brothers were discovered. “I would love for there to be some kind of art work commemorating what that spot meant for all those decades,” she says.

She says that many people have no idea of Philly’s place in the history of tap dancing, let alone that the Nicholas Brothers, two of the greatest tap dancers to ever shim sham shimmy, grew up here. Even Jaye, an avid hoofer since she donned her first pair of tap shoes in the 10th grade at Philly’s Creative and Performing Arts High School, was in the dark. She was applying for a grant to fund a tribute piece to her personal tap mentor South Philly native LaVaughn Robinson for her 2007 Philly Tap Challenge, when it was suggested that she would have a better chance if she honored a bigger local name like the Nicholas Brothers.

“I was like, they’re from Philly?” she says, with mock jaw-dropping. She was familiar with their legendary dance numbers like the one from Stormy Weather, which she recalls seeing on Saturday afternoon TV when she was young. “It was one of those things that a child remembers when it comes back to them later on.” The Nicholas Bros. came back to her in the 80s, when she heard about their Tony-winning Broadway revue Black and Blue, a celebration of black dance and music. Jaye says that’s when her interest in tap became “really, really heavy,” and just a year and a half after putting on her first Capezios she was touring with the Bentley Bros. Circus as a chorus girl–a story of natural talent, success, and “moxie” akin to that of Fayard and Harold Nicholas.

After the jump: how the Nicholas Bros. became Gene Kelly’s biggest nightmare and why tap dancers get a bad rep.

Fayard was born in 1914 to musician parents who played at the historic Standard Theater on 12th and South. As a young boy he sat in the front row and watched the greatest black vaudeville acts of the time, imitating their dancing and acrobatics on the street. Harold was born in 1921, and soon after he began imitating his older brother’s moves.

“He’s like a poet talking to you with his feet and hands,” Harold once said of Fayard. For the Nicholas Bros. signature move, they would was a leap into a splits and shoot back up without their hands ever touching the ground. As the story goes, the first ever of these signature splits was on a Philly sidewalk.

“I would see a fire hydrant, and I would jump over the fire hydrant and do a split,” says Fayard in a film about the brothers that Fayard’s son Tony gave to Jaye when she was putting together the tribute. We watched the DVD in Jaye’s home on a residential street similar to the one the Nicholas’ grew up on. As children, the brothers’ dancing, athletic ability, and undeniable charisma was discovered and they began performing regularly at The Cotton Club in New York, moving on to the Ziegfeld Follies and Babes in Arms, both choreographed by George Balanchine.

The brothers had a long career in 20th Century Fox movies, becoming well-known for their combination of elegance and athleticism. They do a series of their famous splits leap-frog-style over each other’s heads down a huge white staircase in Stormy Weather, a number which tap star Gregory Hines compared to Shakespeare, and Fred Astaire supposedly called “the finest piece of tap dancing ever filmed.”

“As soon as I saw them my mind was blown. I just couldn’t believe what they could do,” recalled Hines in the film.

Even more remarkable is that the Nicholas Bros. almost never rehearsed. “We would just picture what we would do and then do it,” said Fayard, a skill they honed from the early days of Harold imitating Fayard. Jaye recounts a story that Tony told her:

“It was scary to the filmmakers and to the costars the brothers worked with that they wouldn’t rehearse. They were doing a film with Gene Kelly, and apparently Harold just refused to rehearse this number. They talk it over, ‘Ok, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that,’ but Gene doesn’t believe that Harold knows the routine because he’s just sitting there, cool as a cucumber . . . he doesn’t say not one word. They just let the music play, dance the routine through one time–nail it! Gene was like, ‘I cannot believe this just happened.’ They knew the entire routine, because of how they learned stuff as kids. Fayard learned to just trust Harold because he knew his little brother had it, top to bottom, bow and everything.”

The brothers were honored with a star on the Walk of Fame in 1994, and continued to perform even into their 80s–check out this video of them tapping with the Jacksons in amazing bell-bottom suits–until Harold passed away in 2000 and Fayard in 2006.

“They had a tremendous impact, specifically for black people,” said Gregory Hines. “Black audiences would go to a movie and see the Nicholas Bros. and feel that kind of pride.”

“They were nothing but pure entertainers who earned every last second of their applause, and then some. Phew!” says Jenn Rose, who tapped in last year’s Live Arts Festival. She also tapped in the Philly Tap Challenge Nicholas Bros. tribute in 2007 alongside The Nicholas Sisters, Fayard’s granddaughters, who danced the Bros.’ routine Lucky Number in front of a projected video of the original performance. They also taught the Nicholas’ version of the Shim Sham Shimmy and the Honi Cole “Stroll and Philly Step” to local tappers who most likely had no idea the origin of these famous steps.

Jaye has held the Philly Tap Challenge every year since 2004 around National Tap Dance Day on May 26th as a “family reunion for tap dancers.” Tap dance needs an event like this, she says, because most people pull their children out of tap class at the age of 10 and they don’t pick it back up again until they’re adults (like the dancers in her tap class for card-carrying senior citizens). She also says that tappers get a bad rep because venues don’t like them to scuff up their floors. Jenn and Jaye both express an urgent need to recognize tap and keep the Philly tap legacy alive. Continuing the Tap Challenge is so important to Jaye for these reasons, and also because she wants to help communicate the roots of Philly tap and encourage the excitement of the art that the Nicholas Brothers, with their “huge sense of exuberance,” embodied.

This year there won’t be a Tap Challenge because of a series of unfortunate events–she tore her knee, her ceiling fell in–at the time when she would have normally been planning it. However, “Next year it’ll be bigger and better. It’s too important,” she promises.

In the meantime, she has that dream of the mural at Broad and South: “I would put a stage under it, so that any passerby could get up onstage. They wouldn’t even know what they were doing, just feeling it and having that moment in time and getting out some rhythm. We’ve got to keep that exuberance alive and attack this city with tap dance . . .” She puts a hand to her ear. “It’ll be like, ‘Did you just hear a time step in the distance?'”

–Ellen Freeman

Nicholas Brothers photos courtesy of Tony Nicholas, Tap Challenge photo by Denis Gronostayskiy.