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Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Performance and Choreography

Rhythm and blues performances are as much about presenting fashion and style as they are about music. Color-coordinated, custom-tailored outfits and choreographed hand gestures—often employed by doo-wop groups—enhance live performances. And artists from Jackie Wilson to James Brown crafted flashy dance moves to set themselves apart from other performers. To prepare Motown artists for mainstream performances on stage and television, founder Berry Gordy hired modeling school owner Maxine Powell in 1964 and dancer-choreographer Charles “Cholly” Atkins in 1965 to train his artists. Powell instructed the artists in poise and public speaking. Atkins worked with artists to literally make the “rhythms visible” using his “vocal choreography” to create synchronized routines that are still associated with many of the groups he worked with, such as the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Supremes. Martha Reeves, from Martha and the Vandellas, who also worked with Atkins, acknowledges, “Our performances had twice the value because of his input.”

The Rhythm and Blues program is produced in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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