Fayard Nicholas, the elder of the legendary tap dancing Nicholas Brothers, died in Burbank, Calif. Jan. 24 of pneumonia, following a stroke in November.
Renowned for their elegant, acrobatic tap style that Fayard often referred to as “classical tap,” Fayard and Harold, who died in 2000, broke down racial barriers throughout their career. As child performers at Harlem’s Cotton Club, they were the only entertainers in the all African-American cast allowed to mingle with patrons.
The Nicholas Brothers made their film debut in 1932 in the short “Pie Pie Blackbird” with Eubie Blake. The brothers danced their way through films such as “The Big Broadcast of 1936” and “Kid Millions” while performing at the Cotton Club and in Broadway shows.
They were the only African-American tap dancers to work on Broadway with choreographer George Balanchine (“Babes in Arms” and “Ziegfeld Follies”).
The brothers are best known for a series of films they made at 20th Century Fox, audiences were so impressed with their gravity-defying performances in films such as “Down Argentine Way” (1940) and “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) that projectionists were forced to rewind the film and show their dance again and again. Fred Astaire called their segment in the film “Stormy Weather” (1943) “the greatest dance number ever filmed.” In a 1997 interview, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov called the brothers “the most amazing dancers ever.”
Nicholas won a Tony in 1989 for his choreography of the musical “Black and Blue.” In 1991, the Nicholas Brothers were recipients of the Kennedy Center Awards and were also honored at the Academy Awards. They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
Still active after brother Harold’s death in 2000, Nicholas danced at tap festivals and gave lecture-demonstrations, most recently at the L.A. Tap Fest in Los Angeles. His most recent film appearance was in the 2005 comedy “Hard Four.” Fayard and Harold were the subject of two documentaries: “We Sing and We Dance” (1997) and “Flyin’ High” (1998).
A tribute being planned for June 15 at the Playboy Mansion.
Nicholas is survived by his wife, Katherine Hopkins-Nicholas, an actress; a sister, two sons, Tony and Paul, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.