Coles & Atkins: A Class Act

Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.

Next up we’ve got Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins.

Who are Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins?

Coles & Atkins were tap duo known for their suave style and impeccable unison. Instead of showing off acrobatics and bold tricks, the pair mesmerized audiences with their cool, laid-back vibe and signature “Soft Shoe” dance where they performed a painstakingly slow and hypnotically smooth routine in perfect harmony—a talent that is especially challenging for tap dancers who need to not only match the physical movements of their partner but also the exact sound and quality of the taps.

Before they were a team

Charles “Honi” Coles (1911-1992) grew up in Philadelphia where he learned to tap on the streets, challenging neighborhood kids to dance duels—and usually winning. As a young adult, Coles moved to New York City to perform as part of vaudevillian troupe, “The Three Millers.” But when the other two dancers sought to replace Coles, he decided to prove them wrong by perfecting his technique and amping up his performance. When Coles returned to the NYC dance scene, he was hailed for his graceful style and incredibly fast feet. He performed with “The Lucky Seven Trio” and as a soloist for Cab Calloway’s orchestra before pairing up with Cholly Atkins (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). After their career as a duo, Coles worked as production manager for the Apollo Theater, served as president of the Negro Actors Guild, co-founder of the Copasetics (a tap ensemble honoring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), and won both a Tony and Drama Desk award for his performance in Broadway’s My One and Only. Later in his life, Coles was bestowed a Dance Magazine Award, Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, and National Medal for the Arts to honor his lasting legacy in tap dance.

Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913-2003) was born in Pratt City, Alabama and moved to Buffalo, New York with his family at the age of seven. Atkins grew up performing in his school’s musicals and, as a teenager, worked as a singing waiter. He and coworker, William Porter, partnered up to form the song-and-dance act, “Two Rhythm Pals.” Atkins went on to dance with Dotty Saulters before pairing up with Honi Coles (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). Throughout his performance career, Atkins also choreographed and coached behind-the-scenes. He was named staff choreographer at Motown Records and staged acts for stars like the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes. He also won a Tony Award (shared with Fayard Nicholas, Frankie Manning, and Henry LeTang) for his choreography in the Broadway show, Black and Blue. In 1993, Atkins was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to teach vocal choreography (staging for vocal artists and singing groups) in colleges and universities.

A “class act”

Coles & Atkins won over audiences with their elegance, charm, and no-fail formula—beginning with a fast-paced song-and-dance number, followed by their trademark soft-shoe, and ending with an impressive dance challenge where each performer one-ups the other with their very best moves. The dynamic duo performed throughout the Las Vegas show circuit, with the big bands of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie, and on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coles & Atkins were considered a “class act”–the cream-of-the-crop tap dancers—and their signature style continues to influence and inspire tap dancing today.

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