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Cholly Atkins - More Resources

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Cholly Atkins (1913-2003)

Essay by Jacqui Malone

Copyright 2011 Jacqui Malone

Cholly Atkins was the quintessential American dance artist. As a sublimely elegant tap dancer and the creator of a new dance genre, vocal choreography, he lived a life which brought together many art forms that help define twentieth-century culture in the United States: jazz dance, jazz music, rhythm and blues, musical theater, and rhythm tap. Atkins was one of this country's most influential choreographers. The broad spectrum of American dance figures includes very few artists who have had a comparable impact on the evolution and preservation of vernacular dance forms, and their projection to a worldwide audience.

Born in Pratt City, Alabama, Charles Sylvan Atkinson moved with his family to Buffalo, New York, at age four. Six years later he won a Charleston contest at a local theater, and by high school was alternating basketball practice with rehearsals for musicals. In 1929, he began his professional performing career as a singing waiter at a club near Buffalo, where he met his future partner, William Porter, a dancing waiter. By the early 1930s, the two of them were known as the Rhythm Pals, a vaudevillestyle song-and-dance team. When that partnership folded in the late thirties, Atkins landed a job dancing and helping to choreograph acts for the renowned Cotton Club Boys, who were appearing with Bill Robinson in the Hot Mikado at the 1939 World's Fair.

During the early 1940s, Atkins toured with his second partner, singer and dancer Dotty Saulters. This winning team shared stages with the Mills Brothers, the Earl Hines Band, the Louis Armstrong Band and the Cab Calloway Revue. His last and most enduring partnership was formed with high-speed rhythm tap dancer, Charles "Honi" Coles. Their formation of a “class act” team1 in 1946, led to a series of tours with the bands of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Johnny Otis (featuring the Ink Spots), Charlie Barnet, and Billy Eckstine. Coles and Atkins continued working together throughout the 1950s, but by the decade's end, tap had entered a period of sharp decline. Their years of making jazz rhythms visible to music and dance fans throughout the U.S. and abroad gradually came to an end.

Meanwhile, Atkins was building a new kind of dance career with a new kind of dance form. As early as 1953, he periodically coached vocal groups, who were replacing variety shows at theaters around the country. In 1962, his coaching skills were solicited by the Shaw and William Morris agencies in New York City. This led to an important position as staff choreographer for Motown Records from 1965 to 1971.

Jazz dance artist Cholly Atkins set the standard for presenting America's leading rhythm & blues singers. Between 1953 and 2002, he directed, staged, and choreographed acts for countless artists, including the Cadillacs, Shirelles, Moonglows, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, O'Jays, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and the Manhattans.

The Atkins contribution to American culture has been extraordinarily significant. He made polished performers out of rock-androll singers who started with a hit single and raw ambition. And he taught them to perform their music, not by retelling a song's storyline in predictable pantomime, but by punctuating it with rhythmical dance steps, turns, and gestures drawn from the rich bedrock of American vernacular dance. In doing so he created a new form of expression: vocal choreography. 

Thoroughly versed in twentieth century African American dance forms, from social dances like the Charleston to street corner (and then stage) sensations like rhythm tap, Atkins gave his singing groups depth and magnetic appeal. Without knowing it, popular groups of the sixties, seventies, and eighties were performing updated versions of dances of the forties, thirties and twenties--classic vernacular dances--and projecting them to a larger audience than ever before. Through the good offices of Cholly Atkins, even movements from tap, markedly out of favor in the sixties, were being taught to sixties rock-and-roll stars who introduced them to a new generation in the U. S. and around the globe.

Cholly Atkins received many awards for his contribution to the class act tradition in American tap dance. His partnership with Honi Coles was referred to as “The Last of the Class Acts” by Marshall and Jean Stearns in their groundbreaking book, Jazz Dance: American Vernacular Dance. Along with Coles, Atkins served as a collaborator and consultant to the Stearnses during the writing of Jazz Dance. Periodically, Coles and Atkins also appeared in workshops with Marshall Stearns at the Newport Jazz Festival and other venues across the United States, helping to illuminate the complexity of rhythm tap, preserve jazz dance, and articulate its relationship to jazz music.

As a major figure in the recording industry, Cholly Atkins received numerous gold records for vocal choreography, and a 1989 Tony Award for his choreography in the Broadway musical Black and Blue. During 1993, The National Endowment for the Arts recognized Atkins as a national treasure by awarding him a three-year Choreographer's Fellowship, its most prestigious grant. In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African American History and Culture sponsored a special tribute at the Hirshhorn Museum, "From Tap to R & B: Celebrating Choreographer Cholly Atkins." There he became the first recipient of the Elder Mentors Award. That same year he was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

At the Fifth Annual American Choreography Awards (formerly the Fosses) in Los Angeles, he was given the 1998 Innovator Award. During the spring of 1999, he traveled to Oklahoma City University to receive the "Living Treasure in American Dance" award from OCU's School of American Dance. One year after the publication of Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins (Columbia University Press, 2001), he returned to OCU to accept an Honorary Doctorate in American Dance.

The legacy of this monumental artist is one that bridges dance and musical genres. During the last twelve years of his life, Atkins enjoyed a second career as an educator, which allowed him to embrace a new generation of dance and music students at colleges and dance festivals in the U.S. and Canada. For seven decades, his warmth, grace, humor, and genius touched people of all ages.

Master dancer, master choreographer, master director, and master teacher, Cholly Atkins was truly the ageless hoofer. 


NOTES

1. Class Act is a term used primarily for tap dance acts of the teens, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s that were based on precision, elegant dress, detached coolness, flawless execution, and dignity.


Jacqui Malone is author of Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance and Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins. Her work has been supported by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Guggenheim and Ford Foundations; and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Books

Atkins, Cholly, and Jacqui Malone. Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Frank, Rusty. Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Articles

Gibbs, Vernon. “Soul, Man.” Crawdaddy (July1974): 16-17.

Levin, Marj. “Cholly: One of the Great Ones!” The Detroiter (September 1973): 26-27,   44.

Malone, Jacqui. “'Let the Punishment Fit the Crime': The Vocal Choreography of  Cholly Atkins.” Dance Research Journal 20, no. 1  (Summer 1988): 11-18.

Masterson, Danielle. “From the Roaring ‘20s to the Space Age.” Rhythm and Business 1,   no. 4 (June 1987): 16-19, 36.

Resnikova, Eva. “Black and Blue on Broadway.” New Criterion 7, no. 8 (April 1989): 60-66.

Stillman, Deanne, “Cholly Atkins, Dancing Machine.” Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977,  38.

Moving Images

Watch Me Move! Prod. Art Cromwell. Los Angeles: KCET, 1986.

Motown 40: The Music Is Forever. Written and prof. by Suzanne de Passe. West Grand Media, 1998.

Over the Top to Bebop. Prod. Dan Gallagher; dir. Nick Havinga. New York: Camera Three, WCBS-TV, 1965.

Everybody Dance Now. Prod. and dir. by Margaret Selby. New York: PBS Great Performances, WNET, 1991.