Fred Astaire versus Gene Kelly

A frequently debated question is who was the best dancer? Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

The answer is: the Nicholas Brothers!

Feast your eyes:

Fayard and Harold Nicholas have never been surpassed. Just astonishing. Even Fred Astaire admitted the fabulousness you have just watched was the best dance sequence he’d ever seen. He was correct.

On the research front: Yes, that sequence is from Stormy Weather and yes it was released in 1943. But they were the top act at the Cotton Club from 1932. As you all know the Cotton Club was the top entertainment venue in New York City in the 1930s, which co-incidentally is when and where my next book is set. So rewatching the fabulous Stormy Weather totally counts as research cause it recreates many 1930s era Cotton Club numbers.

Next stop Emperor Jones from 1933, which I don’t even have to justify. Yay!

For those suggesting 1930s films: I much appreciate it. Just keep in mind I’ve been doing this research for well over a year and have been obsessed by Hollywood films of the 1930s since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Thus if it’s readily available on DVD odds are I’ve already seen it. But if it’s relatively obscure, or only just released on DVD, then suggest away!


  1. Criss on #

    I’m sorry to come on your blog and be nasty, but I have to vote for Gene Kelly. The man has no equal – he defined performance quality. Never once did he ever need to look at his feet, like so many dancers do (not even when he tap danced on roller skates!!!); his facial expressions was as much part of the act has his twinkling toes.

    However, I will agree that the Nicholas Brothers are head and shoulders above Fred Astaire.

    (Then again, maybe I’m just bitter after watching that clip because no matter how long I stretched or how hard I tried, I never was able to do the splits… I’ve never been able to live down that shame from my drill team years.)

  2. khy on #

    So jealous of their splits abilities. I can barely touch my toes, let alone do the splits.

  3. Justine on #

    Criss: Disagreeing with me isn’t nasty—it’s just wrong! 🙂 I certainly agree that Kelly is a better dancer than Astaire. But Kelly is not a patch on the Nicholas Brothers.

    Khy: Not just doing the splits but coming back out of them without using their hands!

  4. marrije on #

    Lovely. Thanks for that bit. (Though I do love both Fred and Gene – why are they never on the telly anymore?)

    I’m also so so grateful that back in the day they knew how to film dance: just keep that camera in one position and let the spectacular do its own talking. I really really dislike programmes like So You Think You Can Dance (I only know the Dutch version, so YMMV) who do all these irritating jump cuts so you can’t see what is going on with their amazing dancers.

  5. Mike Jasper on #

    Holy cow – thanks for sharing that! The part with the splits going down the steps had my mouth hanging open in shock. Um… ow? Amazing.

  6. Laura on #

    I’m a fan of making the distinction between “best” and “favorite”: the Nicholas Brothers were the best…but Gene Kelly will always be my favorite.

    I also recommend going to YouTube and typing in “lindyhop”. I promise that you’ll witness some of the best dancing you’ve ever seen in your life…and I believe it was in the 30s…or maybe the 40s…

  7. Cat on #

    I like them all. But am glad that you are blogging and bringing attention to the Nichols Brothers. There are and were so many talented people out there and many do not get their due. Thanks for bringing the past back and giving them another 15 minutes. Sounds like you are doing a great job on the research and getting a fantastic education. Glad you share. There are many things that should not be forgotten and I did go up on all those movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. There are nice part of my childhood. Good luck on the book and I am so happy that you are out of the bad weather. Have fun with your family during the holiday season. Cat

  8. Cat on #

    I meant to say I did grow up on all those movies…I really need to edit before I post. Sorry. c

  9. Eric Luper on #

    Astaire, Nicholas Brothers…

    Clearly, you forget the best dancer of all time:

  10. Merrie Haskell on #

    I actually gasped a couple of times. Out loud! How embarrassing for me. But that was totally amazing!

  11. Stefanie on #

    Wowzers! They left Astaire and Kelly dancing in their dust!

    The only 1930 movies that I can think of right now are Cary Grant (*dreamy sigh*) movies like Topper and Bringing Up Baby. Then again, just about anything with Grant is worth watching…

  12. Justine on #

    Eric Luper: You are in need of help! I can’t believe you tricked me into watching puppets!

    Cat: Indeed, many many performers did not get their due at the time and still don’t. It’s shocking to me that so few people know of the Nicholas Brothers now.

    Researching this book is the most fun ever. I think I’ll keep writing books set in the 1930s forever.

    Stefanie: Yup, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every Cary Grant film from the 1930s that’s available. Isn’t Topper fabulous? It doesn’t get mentioned as often as Bringing up Baby though I like it just as much.

  13. Kitty on #

    LOVE the Nicholas brothers, but am shocked at all the dissing of Fred Astaire! I love Gene Kelly too for his amazing athleticism and creativity, but Fred Astaire had an elegance of line that makes it clear why he’s Mikhail Baryshnikov’s favorite dancer. Personally I can’t choose a favorite; I love Kelly AND Astaire AND the Nicholas Brothers… and Shirley Temple, who could dance up a storm too. Check out her “At the Codfish Ball” dance with Buddy Ebsen from Captain January; too much fun. And anything she did with Bill Robinson, whom I also worship.

    Yikes, I love tap dancers. Thanks!!!

  14. Kitty on #

    Oh, and I highly recommend the documentary “Been Rich All My Life”, if you haven’t run across it already; it’s about several of the female dancers who danced at the Cotton Club, some of whom are still alive today and recount their experiences. Fab.

  15. Justine on #

    Kitty: Thanks so much for the rec. I have not heard of it and will now track it down. Bless!

  16. stacy on #

    I’m so glad to hear that you’ve seen all the Cary Grant movies. My favorite is My Favorite Wife, but then there’s so many other good ones to choose from (Holiday? Bringing Up Baby? can’t choose!). Up until a year or two ago, that was one that I was having a hard time finding on DVD. Now so many good ones that I’ve only been able to see on my tape off AMC from the mid-90s are coming out.

    Thanks for the clip. I’ve also been obsessed with old movies for many a year now, and I’ve heard of the Nicholas brothers but hadn’t ever had a chance to see them in a movie yet. That dance is AWESOME.

    One that you may not know of but is kind of like Stormy Weather in that it was made later, but is about that time period–my favorite Danny Kaye movie of all time is The Five Pennies, about Red Nichols, the band leader who got the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, and so many jazz/big band artists started. He was up there with Bix Biderbeck and Louie Armstrong. But he mysteriously disappeared from the scene because his daughter got polio (or at least, that’s what happened in the movie, and I think it’s much like The Glenn Miller Story in that it fictionalizes a lot) and it’s just a great combination of Kaye’s drama and comedic acting skills. I just saw that it finally came out on DVD this year, and I wants it.

  17. Gabrielle on #

    Wow, that was absolutely amazing!

  18. Lauren on #

    Most excellently swinging, those two, indeed. They actually combine elements of Astaire’s feather-lightness with Kelly’s rooted earthiness. Nobody does stillness like Gene Kelly. That man stops on a dime! But I’ll take these two for their spirited interpretation of swing. They dance the way the music sounds, and that’s a rare skill.

  19. DavidK on #

    “Topper”! Fun movie, but the book was even better. I imagine that your new book has given you a good excuse to read (or re-read) all of the Thorne Smith novels. Definitely set in the right time, and a wonderful view into the culture of the times. The earliest Ellery Queen mysteries are great for that too – apart from being fun mysteries, they really impart a feel for what it must have been like to live in NY in the ’30s.

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