Cholly Atkins, a superb dancer who brought the polished precision of his legendary tap act with Honi Coles to choreographing the sassy, synchronized moves of the most celebrated Motown performers, died on Saturday in Las Vegas, where he lived. He was 89.
When groups like the Temptations, the Shirelles and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles raised and lowered their arms in unison, spun in up-tempo pivots and sashayed through theatrical entrances and exits, they were following the choreography of Mr. Atkins. And when the Supremes forcefully raised their right hands in "Stop! In the Name of Love," it was he who devised the act.
But orchestrating the movements of Motown was only one fancy step in a lifelong dance. Mr. Atkins also choreographed the performers at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem and toured as a dancer with Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. As half of the duo Coles and Atkins, he virtually defined "class act," the term for a routine distinguished by deceptively easy dignity.
As a teacher, he also worked with an eager young Sammy Davis Jr., whom he had to prevent from jumping out before his cue.
In 1988, Mr. Atkins returned to the world of tap after more than 30 years to help choreograph the Broadway musical revue "Black and Blue." He shared a Tony for the show with his peers Henry LeTang, Frankie Manning and Fayard Nicholas.
Charles Sylvan Atkinson was born on Sept. 30, 1913, in Pratt City, Ala., and moved to Buffalo at 5. His mother taught him to dance, and he won a Charleston contest at 10.
He worked as a singing waiter, a dancing bootblack and a chorus tap dancer for a series of black clubs before becoming half of the Rhythm Pals, a midwestern vaudeville act. He adopted the stage name Cholly after a New York society columnist and shortened his own last name.
When his partner in the Rhythm Pals quit, Mr. Atkins became a freelance choreographer and dancer in Hollywood, and then worked at the Apollo from 1940 to 1942. In World War II, he played drums in an Army band in New Jersey.
He teamed up with Mr. Coles after the war. In 1949, they appeared on Broadway in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and stopped the show every night with their high-flying segment with the ballerina Anita Alvarez.
The duo broke up in the early 1950's, as tap lost popularity, but reunited in 1955 for occasional engagements. Mr. Atkins choreographed the June Taylor Dancers for "The Jackie Gleason Show," among other jobs.
In the mid-50's, a vocal group called the Cadillacs asked him to help add some onstage pizazz. He refined techniques he had already used with performers at the Apollo, teaching the Cadillacs how to sing, move away from the microphone and dance, and then go back with enough breath to sing again.
As he described it in his autobiography, "Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins," written with Jacqui Malone (Columbia University Press, 2001), he used the precise, jazz-based moves that chorus girls had practiced for years. His clients included doo-woppers like the Cleftones and the Heartbeats, and their pop descendants, like Little Anthony and the Imperials.
With his help, Gladys Knight and the Pips became one of the first black groups to make the transition from road tours and state fairs to swank nightclubs and theaters.
Berry Gordy Jr., owner of Motown Records, hired him in 1965 to smooth out the images of the black artists he was hoping to market to a wider audience. Mr. Atkins became part of Motown's artistic development department, which included everything from costume preparation to etiquette school. He eventually worked with Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and many others.
Mr. Atkins's wife, Maye, who survives him, said his concern was to retain the essence of a performer's style. "He didn't take their soul away and didn't make them white," she said. "He groomed them to represent themselves in a very, very classy way."
Mr. Atkins's career was stalled by alcoholism, but he stopped drinking in 1967. He continued to work and lecture at tap festivals, where he was a prime attraction. His honors included a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993.
Mrs. Atkins said Mr. Atkins was absolutely businesslike when it came to dance. He danced every number with her the night they met in 1962, but since then had refused to escort her onto the dance floor.
"I don't dance for free," he said more than once.