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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Dance legend Fayard Nicholas had died. He was half of the Nicholas Brothers. The duo amazed audiences from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood in the 1920's, 30's and 40's. They inspired generations of dancers from Fred Astaire to Savion Glover. Joel Rose of member station WHYY has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE: Fayard Nicholas and his younger brother Harold were born into show business. Their parents were both musicians in vaudeville orchestras and the bothers grew up watching from the wings in their Philadelphia. As Fayard Nicholas told NPR's Linda Wertheimer in a 1991 interview, he was the duo's first choreographer.

FAYARD NICHOLAS: I worked it out and my brother and I would get together and he'd have ideas too. So we would make up these different routines.

ROSE: Fayard Nicholas was 18 and his brother Harold just 11 when they became the featured act at New York City's Cotton Club. Their parents weren't even allowed in the audience because the club was all white at the time. The brothers themselves got to hobnob with celebrities after the show. Before long Hollywood producers came calling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW)

ROSE: The Nicholas Brothers went on to create what Fayard called classical tap. They impressed audiences with athletic flips and splits says New York City dance critic Jane Goldberg. She says they were also suave and urbane and were as expressive with their hands as they were with their feet. Goldberg says they set the bar high for dancers who came after them including the late Gregory Hines.

JANE GOLDBERG: I was talking to Gregory Hines two years ago before he died and we were actually talking about someone trying to do a Broadway show about them, and he said who could play them? No one could ever play the Nicholas Brothers because you could never, like, really capture what they did.

ROSE: Goldberg says there's a scene in the 1943 film Stormy Weather that shows the Nicholas Brothers at their best.

GOLDBERG: They run up the stairs and they just, they make a jump, dive down the whole flight of stairs and land in splits and then just come up as if it was nothing.

ROSE: As Fayard Nicholas told NPR the scene didn't require very much rehearsal.

NICHOLAS: We did that in one take. We never did rehearse coming down those stairs jumping over each other's heads. Our choreographer at that time, he is name was Nick Castle, and Nick Castle said, don't rehearse it, just do it. He just thought we could do it in one take and that's the way it happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMY WEATHER)

NICHOLAS: As we got down to the bottom, to the stage and the people would see us dancing more and going up the stairs I guess they would say, what are they going to do now? And so we'd get up the top and then we'd slide down into a split.

ROSE: Fred Astaire once called the scene the greatest dance number ever filmed. But in most of their movies the Nicholas Brothers were on screen only briefly, and their dance sequences were often cut from prints that were shown in the South. Harold Nicholas told NPR that his older brother was never offered the kinds of starring roles that white dancers got.

HAROLD NICHOLAS: They weren't writing anything for black artists. They weren't writing anything like Fred Astaire for us to do, you know? Dance with the girl or whatever, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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