Jewish World Review April 29, 2003 / 27 Nissan, 5763
Leonard Pitts, Jr.
The man behind Motown's moves
This is for Pops.
After all, the news of his death came and went last week, little noticed in the rush of other things. It's not surprising, given all that's going on in the world.
But it seems to me that he deserves a little more.
You know him, even if you think you don't. Charles Atkinson, born in rural Pratt City, Ala. Worked as a street performer, a singing waiter, a tap dancer. Did a stint in the Army, formed a dance team with Charles ''Honi'' Coles, performed on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Nat King Cole. Somewhere in there, he took a stage name: Cholly Atkins.
None of which is why you know him. No, the thing that makes ''Pops,'' as everyone called him, immortal is this:
He taught Motown to dance.
When Gladys Knight's Pips high-stepped while she explained what she'd heard through the grapevine, when the Supremes made like traffic cops saying Stop! In The Name of Love, when the Temptations' fleet feet called Newton a liar, that was the work of Cholly Atkins, Motown choreographer.
''He gave us more than steps,'' Abdul ''Duke'' Fakir of the Four Tops told a reporter. ``Cholly gave us wisdom. He taught us how to touch an audience and about living life.''
Knight issued a long, affectionate statement whose sentiment is probably best captured in its first four words: ``He was the best.''
And Otis Williams, the last surviving charter member of the Temptations, told me, ``That's the closing and the losing of an era as far as choreography is concerned. I look at these [younger] artists doing their little stuff, but I don't care what they say, what they do, Cholly Atkins was the master, bar none. Cholly's stuff never looks dated. His stuff is so unique, it will stand the test of time.''
The accolades are well earned. If men and women like Williams, Fakir and Knight created Motown's sound, Atkins was largely responsible for its look. And that look mattered for reasons beyond showmanship.
After all, we're talking about the 1960s, the era when integration was hashed out on the streets of American cities and in the temples of American law. It was an era of inroads -- first black this, first black that.
If you were that black doctor, lawyer or cop, going places people like you had never gone before, you were acutely aware that more than your own fortune was riding upon what you did. Millions of African-American people rose or fell with you.
The pressure was compounded immeasurably if your profession placed you in the public eye. If you were an athlete, a movie star, a singer, you knew black people were pulling for you to make them proud and white ones were watching you for clues to what Negroes were like. More to the point, watching you to help them decide if Negroes were good enough.
Motown's stars were groomed in direct response to that pressure. They were taught to dress, to handle an interview, to carry themselves. Then the old hoofer would line them up in front of the mirrors and teach them to move.
The result was a look of sleekness, polish and precision. Of effortless class. So much so that if you were a black kid -- heck, a white one, too -- you gaped at what you saw. You wondered how they moved like that. How they came to be like that.
A major part of the answer was an old man whose name you never knew and who never stopped working. He won a Tony Award for choreographing the 1988 Broadway musical Black and Blue, received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1993, helped design Knight's current Las Vegas show.
In fact, Pops hoofed all the way up to February of this year, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in a Las Vegas hospital this month at age 89.
The legacy he leaves is more than dance steps. It's that black kid and white kid together, watching, trying to figure out how people can move like that.
And maybe in the process, taking a few steps of their own.
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