Halfway through the film “Dreamgirls,” in a performance of the title song, three women in floor-length gowns are shown from behind.As they float toward the front of a stage and begin to sing, they carve the air with their arms, in synchronized gestures that follow their exaggerated hourglass silhouettes. Every aspect of their movement conveys the same singular image – shimmering glamour and modern, urbane energy – that made their music such a hit.Based loosely on the Supremes and adapted from Michael Bennett’s 1981 Broadway musical, “Dreamgirls” is the story of three women – played by BeyoncÃ© Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose – who start out as backup singers and end up as stars. But though the movie’s primary subject is music, it’s the Motown era’s underappreciated movement style that keeps the whole thing shaking.
Fatima Robinson, the choreographer responsible for the on-screen moves, has extensive experience with girl groups: while growing up in Los Angeles, she created dances for herself and her two younger sisters. “Choreographing ‘Dreamgirls’ was such a trip,” she said recently, “because I felt like I was placed back in my mother’s shoes.” Literally, that is. “I was 10 years old, with my two little sisters beside me, and performing for my mom and her guests,” she said.
Beyond that, however, her qualifications are indirect: she is too young to have experienced the Motown moves when they were new, and she has had no formal dance training. She hadn’t even seen the original “Dreamgirls” onstage. But that doesn’t mean she is a novice. She honed her technique during her teenage years in Los Angeles club competitions and as a backup dancer in music videos.
At 21, she choreographed her first video, for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” From there she went on to choreograph for people like Lenny Kravitz, Busta Rhymes, Prince, Mary J. Blige, Andre 3000 of OutKast, and most recently Fergie and Nelly Furtado. Now 35, she is one of the most sought-after hip-hop and popular-music choreographers in the world.
Bill Condon, the film’s director, and Laurence Mark, its producer, invited her to audition for the job, along with three other choreographers. Each had a week to come up with a version of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” a show-stopping number about the theft of one of their songs by a white group.
Robinson decided to take some chances. Whereas the original stage version uses dancing horn players, she recalled, “I went out and got a bunch of tambourines and chairs, and gave it a whole church feeling instead.” She also made the movements less jazzy and more street. “The point was to prove these guys are tough, so it doesn’t feel too dancy. It’s just smooth and cool.”
The choreographers selected dancers, rehearsed and at the end of the week presented a taped video of the dance. Condon and Mark liked what they saw on Robinson’s tape. “Fatima brought an entirely different perspective to the piece.” Mark said. “She brought in gospel and jazz and blues and soul and rock. It was this amazing amalgam of styles.”
She kept that street influence palpable throughout the film, for a dance style that is less explicitly theatrical than the original stage choreography by Bennett and Michael Peters.
Wearing knee-high boots and poppy red lipstick, she could be a figure in one of her stylish music videos. Certainly no one would mistake her for one of the Lycra- and jazz shoe-clad dancers of the original “Dreamgirls” cast. But she said she believes that she has a lot in common with Peters, who died in 1994.
“We both use feeling in an essential way,” she said. “We go off intuition. He would tell his dancers to stop standing up so straight, dig in it, get on the ground. There was even an element then of street dance in his choreography. Even though it was jazz, it still had this quality of toughness and authenticity.”
For all her innovation, she said she learned a great deal by studying vintage tapes of “American Bandstand,” “Shindig!” and “Soul Train.”
Much of the movement style now associated with Motown was invented by a man named Cholly Atkins, the record label’s staff choreographer. An inimitable tap dancer who had worked with black vaudeville acts and chorus lines, he created moves to fit a group’s individual sounds, what came to be known as vocal choreography.
“He would really listen to the rhythm deep in the music,” said his biographer, Jacqui Malone, “and he would make the steps go with those rhythmical hooks. With the Supremes, a lot of their movements had to do with over-the-shoulder glances, swaying of the hands and that kind of thing.”
Robinson did something similar for the Dreams, whose dance skills evolve over the course of the story. “The first few times you see them, they’re trying to get their steps together,” she said. “They don’t know anything. They were just thrown into this. They barely know the songs. But by the time you see the girls performing as Dreamgirls, their hair is done, their movement is very cool, simple and beautiful.”
Exacting preparation is a hallmark of Robinson’s work, on the set and far off it. At technical rehearsals for the VH1 hip-hop honors in early October, she arrived at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan to block out the show, which she also choreographed.
“I am a hip-hop choreographer,” she said after the rehearsal.
“Whatever I do, whether it’s ‘Dreamgirls’ or an awards show like tonight, is influenced by that. For ‘Dreamgirls,’ I had to make the movement authentic to the time and still make it feel fresh. But it wasn’t that hard because Motown naturally informs all of what I do. It represents African-American music, and R&B and hip-hop are children of that whole era. And once those children started scratching their parents’ records, they became the next level of African-American music, and what I do is a part of that.”