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Beyoncé’s choreographer on Beychella and inspiring others

KING OF DANCE: JaQuel Knight

DANCE AND music have had close relations in most genres. From new jack swing to contemporary pop, music far and wide has historically incorporated a rhythmic dancing component, however big or small. In the mainstream arena, dance has helped in labelling the likes of Janet Jackson, during her Rhythm Nation 1814 epoch, as a bonafide, fully-packaged artist. Metro Weekly has since revisited this moment, calling her visuals during this era “outstanding” and her dancing “breathtaking”.

Choreographers prove integral to the foundations of a great dance moment in popular culture. For Rhythm Nation (the single), it was Anthony Thomas and for Thriller it was Michael Peters. In the new millennium, it would be JaQuel Knight that would aid in shaping Beyoncé’s career-defining moments — including Single Ladies, and Coachella 2018 (Beychella colloquially). As I wait for Knight to purchase one of his favourite south-east asian dishes from a local restaurant in Islington, Normani’s Motivation fills out the main-rehearsal room at prestigious dance studio Urdang, also based in north London. After seconds of the songs introduction, the talent enters, relaxed and dancing to the pulse of the single, taking a seat humming every word shortly after.

As the music quietens, he gives his verdict on the Fifth Harmony graduate. “I love Normani, my best-friend [Sean Bankhead] choreographs for her. She’s doing some really great stuff. Another friend of mine Victoria Monét is writing some of the songs for the album.” It’s quickly established that it takes a lot of time and effort for a choreographer to construct a dynamic that Bankhead and Normani have established throughout their time together as of late, but also during his work with Fifth Harmony, helping to promote the group as all around forces; the dancer compares this relationship to his and singer Tinashe’s. “It’s all about spending time together, building a chemistry, that’s how the magic happens. We had a great run.”

INSPIRING: Many want to follow in JaQuel's footsteps

This ability to nurture, build, and therefore inspire artists has led to JaQuel Knight becoming one of the most sought after choreographers in 2019. Hours before this interview on August 22, he was requested for Big Sean and A$AP Ferg’s MTV VMA performance, helping both Sean, Ferg and the back-up dancers with last minute choreography and staging. To Knight, dance and music have a reciprocal correspondence. “As the music changes, the surrounding dance culture changes too.” Promulgating this topic further, we discuss the 2019 market in relation to both of these areas. “We have the City Girls putting it down for Miami, we have Atlanta bringing out so many different sounds, and then we have pop-stars; the Normani’s are trying to bring dancing back into the industry.”

The notion of dance being lost in pop isn’t foreign. Publications such as Yahoo have commented on the absence of dance since the mid ‘10s. The Guardian went further, rendering the current crop of starlets offerings “generic gyrating” in 2015. Knight insists that dancing will return, it’s just that music is “in a weird space, trying to fight for it [dance] back” at this moment in time in his view.

Part of keeping dance at the helm of public consciousness for JaQuel Knight, involves giving back to the community. Late last month, the visionary held an intensive five-day dance class, which was not only highly subscribed, but garnered attention from the BBC. “For the most part these sessions are organic. I’m trying to give as much wisdom and knowledge to those that wouldn’t otherwise have the access or opportunity to learn at this level.” Knight equates this experience to spending a week with him in rehearsals. “Anything that I would do in my rehearsals I would do here. The dancers are encouraged to continue multiple times a day, they get notes on the spot, they get everything that it takes to be a working professional dancer.”

PROFESSIONAL: JaQuel puts a group of dancers through their paces

The classes seem to be taken seriously by participants. On observation, prior to our interview, dancers who were awaiting JaQuel Knight’s class looked both nervous and excited. “I want these dancers to go into any audition after my class and smash it,” he summarises. Each night does however, focus on a pre-chosen track that Knight has worked on with industry-talent before. Tonight’s song in particular is Nicole Scherzinger’s Right There released in 2011. The single acted as one of Scherzinger’s solo endeavours post-The Pussycat Dolls’ split the year prior.

JaQuel Knight’s career-trajectory has always involved the ideation of briefs such as Right There and Diva. But his biggest challenge he says, was 2018’s Coachella performance. “The experience for me was a complete 360 degree sort of thing. In high school, I was in a marching band, I played saxophone for six years.” The North Carolina native unpacks his time growing up in Atlanta and how he transitioned into being a drum major later and penning music for the band. “My old life blended with my new choreography based life.” Knight summarises that this was the most overwhelming experience of his life. “It was like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

Preparation for such an event takes planning — six months to be exact for everyone who helped in staging the show. “You’re able to look at every piece of the pie, evaluate every move, every touch to make such a performance perfect.” Knight starts listing various components of what made Beychella so memorable to viewers across the world. As he lists marchers, to drummers, to HBCU references, noting specifics such as paying attention to how figures entered the stands, it becomes strikingly obvious that attention to detail is something that comes naturally to JaQuel Knight in 2019. It’s mesmerising seeing his processing in person. He chuckles as he finishes his meticulous recollection of various components that were accounted for. “The creative team have a group-chat, where we send all sorts of inspiration, from social media, to new articles. She [Beyoncé] was pretty much open to anything we had on the table and believed in.”

SOUGHT AFTER: JaQuel's classes are highly subscribed

In the rush to get ready for Coachella, it’s revealed that both Knight and the wider choreography department watched Morris Brown College band videos, which are a staple in enclaves of African-American culture. In conjunction with this, the team also went to Atlanta to watch authentic marching band battles which are referred to as “Battle of the Bands”. For JaQuel Knight, this ignites memories of being “home” where he grew up. “It was Tiffany Burgess that broke me into dancing, she took me to a class in my Atlanta school days.” He remembers his life changing following this moment. After taking a few moments, he reminisces about his formative years in the dancing arena. At age 15, he started a dance crew with a wider group of friends called TruStylz. “We were performing all over the city of Atlanta, I’d found this new passion of mine. These were my formative years of creative direction when I really think about it; I helped decide what to wear, how to film us, everything.”

For Knight and TruStylz, finding their feet was fun, yet unconventional, as dancing wasn’t wildly popular on a mainstream level. The multifaceted talent, mentions that some of the groups early bookings were self-made at parties and events. “After doing everything you could possibly do in the city of Atlanta, we had our own parties, played at clubs, anywhere that we could get a slot.” Sean Bankhead danced for a rival group at the time, and ended up becoming one of JaQuel Knight’s closest friends. “Everyone including Sean and Tiffany are doing well now, we all made it.” At seventeen, following graduation, after a move to Los Angeles his career began to take shape. In his first weeks in his new surroundings, he found himself a dancing job with Sean “Diddy” Combs. “After this moment, things just started to take shape. It all grew from here.”

At this point, the food purchased earlier begins to be opened. Class is close to starting for the day and JaQuel Knight needs to finish eating in time. In between bites, he expresses his intentions of living in London soon. “I love the energy, the vibe, the people here. It’s cool.” We discuss the future further, amongst the ventures in food, TV projects, and travelling somehow we land on J-Hus. “My teams in touch with his team, and I really want to work with him. The rap culture in the UK is about to blow up, I want to help with that.” Knight is keen to see men in hip-hop genres across the world being pioneers. “Offset was good earlier this year, his Clout performance makes sense because he used to dance in school, I believe.” The portion of food is almost finished and we circle-back to J-Hus as he is eager to speak. “There’s so much more we can do as men to give the fans more. I want to do that with all of these artists over here and in the states.”

Knight plans to continue running the dance intensive classes at Urdang on a regular basis, using them to nurture the next generation of young talent, he also gives back while back in his second-home of Atlanta, who now have a day named after him on November 8. “I can’t believe that Dekalb County, where I grew up in metro Atlanta are doing this for me. I’m like ‘how did we get here?’” He laughs, but is evidently humbled at his impact not only regionally, but worldwide. “I want to help lead a new standard in dance, I want dancers to see what I’m doing and feel inspired to do and add something different to our field.”

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