You can’t truly celebrate Black History Month without mentioning Motown, and you can’t mention Motown without Cholly Atkins.
It’s kind of a rite of passage for little kids of every ethnicity and race who were exposed to Motown music to pretend to do each act’s trademark moves. The “classic” Motown era of the 1960s and 1970s is remembered for its singing groups with the elaborate costumes, love ballads, political statements, and music that makes you want to dance (shout, and, yes, shake your body down to the ground). Musical acts like The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and The O’Jays are especially remembered for their precise choreography and sharp moves while performing. It’s crazy to know that there was one man, one mastermind choreographer, behind it all: Mr. Charles Sylvan Atkinson, better known as “Cholly Atkins.”
Born in Alabama in 1913, Cholly Atkins began dancing before entering the military in World War II. Like many artists who came out of military service, he and a friend, Charles “Honi” Coles developed a vaudeville dance act, Coles and Atkins, that featured tap, soft shoe, swing dance, and a tap challenge.
After spending years touring in showcases with other amazing black acts like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway, both dancers performed on Broadway in the stage production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the mid-1950s, Atkins began freelance choreographing for several singing groups, until 1964 when he was hired by Berry Gordy as a Motown choreographer. He appeared onstage with several acts, and when music videos became popular he was featured doing his own steps with many of those acts. Atkins can also be attributed to the creation of the partner dance known as the Graystone, a tribute to the historic Graystone Ballroom.
Cholly Atkins has to be, in my not-so-humble opinion, what made Motown acts distinct from acts on other labels. Think of the musical acts you love today. What distinguishes them from the other artists in their genres? For many black acts in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the moves Cholly Atkins created to enhance their performances. Atkins was great at fitting the style and content of each act to the moves he created for them. The military man-turned vaudeville dance act-turned Broadway dancer took his classical training to mainstream music fans with what he called “vocal choreography” – literally acting out the lyrics and rhythm of songs with their body movements. If Atkins had not choreographed for Motown, it is arguable that the label would not have earned its place as the legendary label we know and love.