“Mrs. Powell was always a lady of grace, elegance and style, and we did our best to emulate her,” Martha Reeves, the former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training.... Every asset of my personality has been by her influence... Even to the end, she was making sure that I was standing with posture and exuberant grace.”She scolded the Supremes about how they were dancing the shake. “You are protruding the buttocks... Whenever you do a naughty step like the shake, add some class to it. Instead of shaking and acting tough, you should roll your buttocks under and keep smiling all the time.” She showed them how to do it and: "They were shocked that I could do it and at how much better it looked my way."
Maybe you're thinking: Why aren't there any Maxine Powells around anymore to class up the pop stars of today? But there must be. They're simply classing them up to suit the taste of our time, which is to say putting them somewhere near the edge of what is acceptable to the big majority. More is acceptable today because of what went on in those earlier years. Dancing the shake at all — rolling the buttocks — was near the edge of acceptability in the 1960s. So that Powells' modification — smile when you roll those buttocks — shaped how people felt about such things and was part of a process that got us where we find ourselves today.
The NYT obituary — at the link — doesn't mention the topic of race (other than to say that Powell founded a finishing and modeling school "which placed the first black models" (was it only for black women?)). But it's hard to ignore that Motown succeeded in making black performers popular with white Americans, who might not have liked them so much if they hadn't been remade in the way Powell taught. What does it say about American racism? It was Powell's idea of what white people wanted and didn't want.
It worked, so who can say what would have happened if some other approach had been used?