Learning to dance like James Brown

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Photo: D. Stevens/Universal Pictures Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown in the new film Get on Up, a biopic based on the life of the Godfather of Soul.

Choreographer Aakomon “AJ” Jones was given 30 days to teach actor Chadwick Boseman to dance like the inimitable James Brown. The task would have been less challenging if Boseman had ever danced professionally.

Boseman, best known for portraying ballplayer Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42, actually had no dance experience. “If it were up to me, he would have had no less than two months (of training),” says Jones, a self-taught dancer. “We didn’t have that luxury, so we had to double-down.”

And double-down they did, working for two hours a day, four days a week to begin with and then boosting Boseman’s training to six hours a day, five days a week. But the end result is worth the effort: a near perfect portrayal of the Godfather of Soul in the film Get On Up. Released on Aug. 1, the movie has received critical acclaim both overall and  specifically for Boseman’s performance. 

Jones’ work played no small role in helping bring one of rhythm and blues’ most iconic performers to life.

“Chad had rhythm, and I knew that if we gave it enough focus, we would accomplish (the) goal,” Jones says. “We didn’t use any dance doubles in the film, and when the camera showed a close-up of Chad’s feet, we made sure it panned up to a full body shot so the audience could see that it was Chad who was dancing.”

Despite a lack of formal training, the 10-year choreography veteran knows what he’s doing. He’s choreographed for every major pop star — from Madonna and Mariah Carey to Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake — and has choreography credits on Dreamgirls, Pitch Perfect and the upcoming sequel Pitch Perfect 2.

In Get On Up, he tackled a biopic about a performer he credits with helping to change both the industry and the way the American public views African-American R&B music. 

“I had been a James Brown fan for many a year,” says Jones, whose hometown of Decatur, Georgia, is roughly 90 miles from Toccoa, where Brown began as a gospel singer. “I could have rolled the dice and did this without research, but I studied a lot of film and read James Brown’s autobiography. But I also took some key tips from Chad and what he was learning about his character from the book. I tailored my approach and piggybacked it on Chad’s understanding of his character.”

Brown was born into poverty in 1933 and led a hardscrabble life. As a child he was abandoned by his mother and beaten by his father. He escaped such traumas by immersing himself in gospel singing.

Eventually Brown joined an R&B group called the Avons, which later changed its name to The Famous Flames. Brown served as lead singer.

The rest, as they say, is musical history.

James Brown performances were famous for the singer’s dance moves. Brown created a familiar pattern he could improvise on: a series of rapid-fire shuffle steps, punctuated by single and double splits, then capped with a collapse to his knees. Brown, like Jones, had no formal training, but he had an incredible amount of energy and heart, Jones says.

“James Brown as a dancer is not really that much different than I am,” he muses. “He was familiar with the party dances of the time and went on to own them. He was a master of his craft who made them fit into his performances.”

Moves like Brown’s can be seen in early performances by Marvin Gaye and Sam & Dave, Jones says. But the Godfather of Soul had one distinct advantage over them all.

“As a performer, James Brown knew it was more than just the dance steps,” Jones says. “It’s learning to produce, package and present them to the audience. He was the leader, the full package, the nucleus of even the most complicated stage performance.”

Brown drew his influences from his own sensibilities and from early R&B performers, including African-American saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan, whose performances also included elaborate dance moves.

“Jordan was animated and had a lot of energy, but his technique was nothing like James Brown’s,” Jones says. “Brown was also exposed to a lot of gospel preachers and their antics, and it was show time there, too.”

Brown went on to influence generations of performers, including Michael Jackson, M.C. Hammer, Usher and even Mick Jagger, one of the film’s co-producers.

“James Brown’s movements came from a place of sheer, raw energy and built on dance steps he made his own,” Jones says. “These other performers had to draw their inspiration from somewhere, and James Brown was a great place to start.”

But Brown’s contribution to modern culture went beyond singing and dancing, Jones says.

“James Brown taught not just black people, but all people not to be ashamed of who they are, but proud,” Jones says. “I think that was his greatest contribution.”

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