Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Classic Dancer(s): The Nicholas Brothers

Today's classic dancer feature is on not one but two influential artists - Fayard and Harold Nicholas, known as the Nicholas Brothers. They were the showstoppers of the 1920s and 1930s, who influenced Fred Astaire and legions of other dancers including Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, and Debbie Allen. Regarded as the greatest tap dancers of their time, they combined techniques of tap, jazz, ballet and acrobatics in what was called "flash dancing." (Photo above is from their Wikipedia entry.)

You can see a clip of them here in Stormy Weather:

In the 21st century, we can be awed at the athleticism of bboying whether we see it firsthand or on screen. But if we look back in time, the Nicholas Brothers had everyone beat. Raised in Philadelphia, Fayard and Harold grew up in the vaudeville tradition with their family. Originally, their sister performed with them when they were known as the "Nicholas Kids." Fayard easily drew influences from the vaudeville world that honed his showmanship. Even the basics of performance from not looking at your feet and looking at the audience are principles that we sometimes forget today. But the Nicholas Brothers had it down pat. Moving into performing at the Cotton Club with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and later Cab Calloway, they were performers at a high level. They pioneered what was physically possible with human movement. One of their trademarks was the "flying split" where they'd get up from a split without using their hands as seen in the Cab Calloway sequence in Stormy Weather. As street dancers, we can trace our roots back to the physicality of these athletic dancers. It's amazing to realize how far back our artistic lineage can go if we choose to explore it.

Musicality is another hotly debated topic within our current hip hop and street dance community. When we look at the Nicholas Brothers, they created their own beat with their footwork and visualized the music of an accompanying big band orchestra, as seen in Down Argentine Way. Tap is a dance that you can see and hear. And the Nicholas Brothers took full advantage of this fact regardless of the physical environment. Their musicality was seen and heard, which allowed them to create on top of the accompanying music. Could we as hip hop and street dancers experiment with that concept? How about incorporating elements of Stomp-like props in a choreographed routine? If the DJ and live mixing is part of our culture, can we bring them back into our performances?

It's likely that the Nicholas Brothers' legacy as performers will continue to inspire in this new century. Their story has so much value for us. Their vaudeville beginnings were a great training ground for the stages they would later inhabit on Broadway, nightclubs, and film. Their exquisite class, even simply conveyed through their choice of wearing tuxedos, and consummate skill as entertainers are undeniable. In the end, it's not that we should reproduce what they've done. The Nicholas Brothers simply laid a legacy for us and we can choose to embrace it as we charter new terrain as dancers.

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