Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers

Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers

Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers

Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers


They were two of the most explosive dancers of the twentieth century, dazzling audiences with daredevil splits, slides, and hair-raising flips. But they were also highly sophisticated dancers, refining a centuries-old tradition of percussive dance into the rhythmic brilliance of jazz tap at its zenith. They were Fayard and Harold Nicholas, two American masters masterfully portrayed in this new dual biography by Constance Valis Hill. In Brotherhood in Rhythm, Hill interweaves an intimate portrait of these great performers with a richly detailed history of jazz music and jazz dance, both bringing their act to life and explaining their significance through a colorful analysis of their eloquent footwork, their full-bodied expressiveness, and their changing style. Hill vividly captures their soaring careers, from Cotton Club appearances with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford, to film-stealing big-screen performances with Chick Webb, Tommy Dorsey, and Glen Miller. Drawing on a deep well of research and endless hours of interviews with the Nicholas brothers themselves, she also documents their struggles against the nets of racism and segregation that constantly enmeshed their careers and denied them the recognition they deserved. And to provide essential background to their career and the development of their art, she also traces the three-hundred-year evolution of jazz tap, showing how it emerged in the Southern colonies in the 1700s, as the Irish jig and West African gioube mutated into the American jig and juba. More than a biography of two talented but underappreciated performers, Brotherhood in Rhythm offers a profound new understanding of this distinctively American art and its intricate links to the history of jazz.


When Constance Valis Hill asked me to write the foreword for this fine book on the life and times of the Nicholas Brothers, I thought to myself, "A piece of cake." Having known and been the number one fan of the Nicholas Brothers for practically all my life, I felt I was the right man for the job.

Yeah. Right.

So here I am, three months later, sitting in front of my computer as intimidated as I've ever been in my life. Constance is calling daily, and I can feel the pressure getting as big as my eyes did the first time I saw Harold and Fayard jump down that huge staircase, step by step over each other into those splits, during their legendary dance number in Stormy Weather.

How can I reflect adequately on the greatness of their amazing careers, both as a team and as individuals? Can I paint a picture of them for you to compare with those painted by Fayard's arms and hands while he danced? Is there a way for me to convey to you the ease with which Harold would run right up a wall, into a back flip, into a split, and then pop up as if a puppeteer were above him pulling him up?

No. I can't.

But I can tell you that the dances they performed both on screen and in person were full-fledged art pieces. Death-defying tap-acrobatics that would have required "tap stunt doubles" for anyone else but the Nicholas Brothers. The way they would do the exact same step in unison, as their own uniquely different personalities came through, made us feel like we knew them. The way they would leap into the air and come down into their patented splits and then come up without using their hands. They owned that move. Owned it, I'm telling you. And I know in my heart that there never was a dancer, tap or otherwise, who, upon seeing those "Nicholas Splits," didn't question his or her very . . .

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