Celebrity Choreographer JaQuel Knight On Beyoncé, Blessings And Bob Fosse
The superstar choreographer spoke to VIBE during downtime at Houston's Red Bull BC One Camp.
JaQuel Knight is one of the top commercial choreographers in the world. With a resume spanning several years with top tier entertainers such as Britney Spears, Nicole Scherzinger, and Tinashe, the native ATLien is a dance force to be reckoned with.
For those who aren’t familiar with his name, you’re certainly familiar with his work. JaQuel Knight’s choreography for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” music video sparked a cultural phenomenon, and garnered him an MTV VMA for “Best Choreography." He has been an integral part of the Houston-bred songbird’s creative team ever since. More recently, Knight’s work was viewed by millions during the legendary #Beychella Coachella set, and his infectious dance moves were performed by dancer Mette Towley in the video for N.E.R.D’s “Lemon," which created a viral dance craze titled the #LemonChallenge.
"They approached me with an idea about creating something that could go viral, and get people up and dancing," Knight tells VIBE of working with N.E.R.D on the video. "Pharrell had such a strong vision of how he sees women, and the strength they carry. The whole piece of Rihanna cutting her hair, and her not caring about her hair because you don't need you hair to be a beautiful woman, and then going into this awesome dance that's just from 'I don't give a f**k,' to strong, to beautiful, to sexy, to masculine."
During Red Bull BC One Dance Camp in Houston on Saturday (Apr. 28), Knight taught his original choreography to N.E.R.D’s “Kites” off of their latest album, No_One Ever Really Dies, which was performed at ComplexCon in 2017. Throughout his lesson, he spoke (and sweat) with eager and aspiring dance superstars about how to approach choreography with as much vibrancy as possible, in order to stand out and book the gig.
A late-bloomer in the dance world, Knight started his dance journey at 15 after joining a friend at a commercial dance workshop. “People don't know I was a musician first,” he says with a smile. “I played saxophone for six years, and through that I marched for, like, five of those six years. I just knew I was gonna be a musician, and go to school for audio engineering and be a big time music producer. But, my friend took me to a dance workshop and it changed my life.”
Knight moved to Los Angeles, where he and fellow Atlanta-bred dancer and choreographer Sean Bankhead made a name for themselves with their Southern flavor. Knight says that his upbringing surely adds another level of style to his work, which makes his moves stand out from the pack.
“[Being from the South] gives us a new funk, a new stank that people don't have from L.A.,” he explains. “Just growing up and dancing in Atlanta, just think of the music. The music has always been great, and we've always had that little extra seasoning salt, that hot sauce. I always keep that with me whenever I'm creating, ’don't ever lose where you're from, don't compromise.’"
Knight doesn’t have a rolodex of moves in his head for artists. Instead, he is inspired by the music and the songs he is given to work with. However, as a leader, he aims to make sure the choreography is always executed a certain attention-grabbing way.
“The movement is never something that's predestined, I kind of just love to drown myself in the music and let the moves flow from there,” he explains. “My rehearsal process is very rigorous. I'm hard on you to get grooves and pockets right, and then I'm hard on you to not do the step how I do the step, you know? I'm hard on people for themselves, so they can find the magic within, and your greatness.”
“I'm all about people bringing their own life and personality to things, because that's where I think the magic is. So, it's a weird rehearsal usually! You get cursed out for not being yourself [laughs]. So, I'm really hard on people doing steps, because once it comes to steps, I want you to make sure you're doing your hips right, make sure your shoulders are right, make sure you have the right attitude. It's a big part of everything.”
Of course, we couldn’t discuss his iconic run as a choreographer without bringing up “Single Ladies.” The video turns 10 years old this year, and even all these years later, Knight still has a hard time putting his thoughts about the positive reactions to the visuals into words.
“The feeling is so beyond myself, so much more than me,” Knight says of creating the cultural phenomenon. He and Beyoncé were connected through the Lemonade singer’s former creative director, Frank Gatson, after an audition for a Michelle Williams music video.
“The amount of appreciation from the world for the choreography of [“Single Ladies”], it's just beyond me,” he continues. “I'm still speechless anytime I think of that. I'm just so honored and so thankful for the opportunity to have been able to contribute to pop culture. That's what you grow up dreaming about - being able to do something that has a stamp in history. I'm super proud and very, very honored.”
As with most creatives, Knight says that he can feel defeated from time to time. However, what keeps him grounded is doing something that brings him back to his roots, which is cooking. As far as what keeps him hungry for success in the dance industry, he continues to be inspired by a legendary choreographer.
“Bob Fosse is king. The king,” he says of the famed choreographer and director. His work in Sweet Charity inspired many of the dance moves Knight used in the “Single Ladies” video, and Fosse-inspired moves and style can also be found in the video for "Get Me Bodied."
“Talk about a man whose brilliance was way ahead of his time,” Knight says of one of his idols. “So far ahead, just greatness all over, from vision, to his directorial pieces to his choreography pieces. I'm always like, that's who I want to be. The next Fosse, how can we become that? I aspire to be as great as him one day, and he's totally why I wake up each day to keep going. Just a true artist, and I'm just so thankful that we had Bob Fosse and his work. He's influenced the best of the best, the greatest performance.”
“People are arguing ‘Beyoncé is the new Michael [Jackson].’ They both are taking things from Fosse, they both studied the work of Fosse,” he laughs. “Fosse's like, ‘Hey, I'm here by the way!’ But, yeah, wow, Fosse!”
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