|Charles "Cholly" Atkins Dead At 89|
Cholly Atkins: Jazz Hoofing & Hip-Hop Heritage
Whenever the tongue gets too tangled, or poetry reaches an impasse and other creative gestures fall short, the most expressive option is often just to dance. If there's a hard lesson in this homily, Cholly Atkins has long since learned it. As a result, the heritage of rhythmic hoofing that underlies the history of jazz, R&B, and hip-hop has never been the same. If all this comes as news don't ever again attend a convention, seminar, or teach-in about the aforementioned music genres without having first read Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins (Columbia University Press, 2001), by Atkins and Jacqui Malone. Because until you do, you may be half-informed at best about the evolution over the past century of black dance rhythms and the importance of vernacular choreography.
Atkins recalls his "university" years in the late-1920s black vaudeville scene: "The chorus line dancers were doing what we characterize now as authentic jazz. None of that modern jazz stuff. That came along later. It was pretty much the same type of moves that came out of street dancing. A lot of it had flash steps or expansive physical moves as opposed to close floor work. There was also what we called picture numbers or picture soft-shoe dancing, which had soft movements. The choreography was made up of traveling steps that led the dancers into various formations or figures, all performed to a flowing melody."
The soft shoe, Atkins informs, "evolved from a minstrel dance called the Essence of Old Virginia. Steps are executed in a light and delicate manner, usually performed to a medium tempo with easy, relaxed motion." The flash act was originally "a formal name for jazz dance that uses acrobatic movements." Class Act, however, is not just an education in the art of funky eurythmics (interpreting music with graceful freestyle rhythmic actions) but also an account of a remarkable American life lived at the pace of a Lindy Hop.
Born Charles Atkinson on Sept. 30, 1913, in Pratt City, Ala., he and his mother and brother were soon abandoned by his well-to-do dad. Occasionally obliged to thrash a stepfather who abused his mother, Atkins had few role models and no ready career path to pursue. But after winning a Charleston contest in 1923 in Buffalo, N.Y., he worked as a singing waiter, dancing bootblack, and then promising tap dancer in the chorus on the 1930s "chitlin circuit" of black venues. Cholly needed to hop a freight train back to Buffalo for more secure work at theaters like the Lafayette and Shea's-where he was part of an act called the Rhythm Pals and met legendary dance star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who blessed the Pals' interpretation of Bojangles' signature stair-dance routine.
In 1935, the Rhythm Pals got booked downstate in Harlem's Apollo Theatre, where another famed hoofer, Charles "Honi" Coles, pronounced the Pals a typical Midwestern-type act: "good feet, but no conception." A determined Atkins further refined his craft through continued club work that took him west to California. He met first wife Catherine while appearing in the chorus of an all-black production that backed Lionel Hampton at a bistro called Cafe de Paris. In between dates, Atkins also appeared in Hollywood film shorts, danced in such films as San Francisco, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Old Man River, and recorded tap soundtracks for the musical variety features The Big Broadcast of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1938.
"A lot of black guys did the soundtracks for white chorus-line dancers, who backed stars like Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, and Fred Astaire," explains Atkins, who organized a 16-member troupe for the lucrative off-camera assignments. "They had those big tap dance sequences with about 40 background guys, mainly ballet dancers. They were doing the moves, but we were making the sounds! They couldn't tap a lick, not real rhythm tap."
Atkins toiled in Powell's five-person personal choreographer staff. As film work wound down, he found employment on the California burlesque orbit, did a stint in Chicago, and landed back in Manhattan. His wife danced in the Apollo chorus and he became a member and choreographer of the Cotton Club Boys troupe at that Harlem nightspot, where Cab Calloway's band often headlined. Calloway took the Boys on a nationwide tour with him, and then Atkins and a new dance partner named Dotty Saulters did road trips with Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, and Calloway.
Atkins joined the Army in World War II and was stationed at Camp Kilmer in Stelton, N.J., where he played drums in an Army band and co-wrote songs with Sy Oliver, including "Baby, Are You Kidding?" and "She's My Buddy's Chick," the latter recorded by Nat "King" Cole. In 1944, Atkins divorced, married Dotty, and teamed after the war with colleague Honi Coles. Coles and Atkins became a featured attraction with the Count Basie Band; the pair took jazz tap to new heights with the help of rhythmic collaborators like drummer Jo Jones. In 1949, Coles and Atkins were cast in the Agnes de Mille-choreographed Broadway smash Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. They stopped the show each night for two years with their highflying (and self-choreographed) flash dance segment with ballerina Anita Alvarez.
Atkins went on to teach jazz tap at the prestigious Katherine Dunham School (home of the nation's leading black dance company) and the International School of Dance at Carnegie Hall. He choreographed for the June Taylor Dancers on TV's weekly Jackie Gleason Show and got a gig schooling doo-wop group the Cadillacs in his unique "vocal choreography," which soon became the standard performance style for R&B artists. (The full-page photo of Atkins coaching slim, comely young Columbia Records singer Aretha Franklin in 1960 is alone worth the price of Class Act.)
Pushing beyond pantomime, or mere movement to the tempo of the vocal line, Atkins instructed artists that, as with the debonair intensity of his own percussive jazz tap, the respective syncopations of melody and tempo should be dealt with differently: "The vocal part is one melodic line . . . and the body is moving to the musical background track. While your body is moving to one rhythm, your voice is moving in another rhythmic direction."
Atkins' second wife died of a brain tumor in 1962, and while grappling with a grief-aggravated drinking problem, he remarried a year later to Maye Harrison Anderson, who helped him recover during a period when his choreography clients included the Dells and Gladys Knight & the Pips. He shunned alcohol for good in '67.
"I'm not sure how much the groups knew about the extent of my drinking," writes Atkins, who by 1965 had become the staff choreographer for Motown Records, "because it didn't really affect the quality of my work, and I was never drunk in front of them."
During his Motown period, Atkins devised the edgy but elegant routines that became concert trademarks for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye. When Motown closed its Detroit-based Artist Development department in the early 1970s, Atkins moved on to a similar role at former Motown executives Brian and Eddie Holland's Invictus and Hot Wax labels, working with Freda Payne, Chairmen of the Board, and the Honey Cone.
In 1973, Atkins' work with Philadelphia International acts expanded to embrace the O'Jays, whose intricate Atkins-designed steps became a defining attribute. Those coached by Atkins would prove a varied crew: the Manhattan Transfer, Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines, Stevie Wonder, New Kids on the Block. Atkins kept busy through the 1980s despite a battle with lung cancer, and though he hadn't worn tap shoes since 1965, he put them back on in 1988 to create the choreography for the Broadway musical Black and Blue, for which he won a Tony Award. In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African American History and Culture sponsored a special tribute, "From Tap to R&B: Celebrating Choreographer Cholly Atkins." In 1998, he received the special Innovator honor at the American Choreography Awards, and most recently, he was chosen by the Dance Heritage Coalition as one of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100.
As he nears his 88th birthday, Atkins still works with the Temptations, the O'Jays, and Gladys Knight. He is a direct influence on great young tap dancer friends, such as Savion Glover, and remains a class act-which his book's glossary describes as a "term used for tap dance acts of the teens, 1920s, '30s, and '40s that were based on precision, elegant dress, detached coolness, flawless execution, and dignity."
|Diary Archives by MASAHARU YOSHIOKA|