Music Sermon: Groove Me - The Women Behind The Early ‘90s Dance Legacy
If the category is “women in ‘90s music videos,” the first response that probably comes to mind is, “video vixen.” Hip-hop rose to mainstream prominence in the late ‘90s, and along with it came big budgets, high gloss videos, with stunning sirens at the forefront.
But in the early ‘90s, music videos were all about performance. Visuals were high energy with power choreography, and women were the creative talents responsible for the most crucial element of the culture. We danced hard as hell.
As hip-hop was finally gaining legitimacy at the beginning of the decade, hip-hop dance was still a new specialty. These women all brought new style and technique that had us clearing furniture and burning calories trying to learn routines watching Yo! MTV Jams after school. There’s a lot of crossover with these ladies, too. They were often in the same videos and on the same tours – an example of how small and elite the in-demand talent was.
In our continued celebration of Women’s History Month, we honor some of the key dancers and choreographers of ‘90s R&B and hip-hop.
Bell Biv DeVoe are damn near the mascots for the hard-dancing ‘90s. But their dancers, Str8 Ahead, gave the group a significant amount of their sauce.
Mike Bivens spotted Tee, Nikita, Pluke, and Debra when he judged an L.A. club’s dance competition (they lost to the Pharcyde, who were then a dance crew called GTI). Mike told them he, Ronnie and Ricky were putting their own group together, gave them a new song, and asked them to make up a dance routine. The song was “Poison,” and their routine is the same one we all be ‘bout to f**k our knees up and run out of breath for on the dancefloor today. “That song was over four minutes, and people think that four minutes is a short time to dance at the level that we danced,” Debra shared in an interview. Famed New Edition choreographer Brooke Payne pushed the girls to get their stamina up, making them do the routine back to back, multiple times. ”No disrespect to today’s dancers, but the level of energy we had to give those songs…it was like dancing ten minutes in today’s time.”
Even Mike exhales an “I’m tired, sh*t” at the 2:50 mark.
The ladies were also partially responsible for BBD’s “mental” look. They styled themselves, and the guys started picking up on their bold and colorful mix of street style. The hiking boots BBD became known for? Str8 Ahead wore them first, and then copped them for the guys on request.
Sidenote: I am neither lying nor exaggerating when I tell you that my number one career aspiration at 13 years of age was to become a “BBD Girl.”
Leslie “Big Lez” Sager
Big Lez is the choreographer a lot of people don’t even realize they know. Her choreography days were done before the golden era, when top hip-hop and R&B choreographers became as well-known as their clients.
For those of us old enough to remember, her new jack moves are instantly recognizable. Younger folks know her best as the dancing silhouette in the Living Single intro.
I still don’t understand how in the world some of y’all spent years thinking this was Erika Alexander. She’s Big Lez for a reason. Erika is… Nevermind.
A college gymnast, Lez brought high-level athleticism to urban dance. If you were watching a video and someone randomly did a back walk-over or busted a handstand split, it was probably her. She was the queen of kneepad choreography, ‘cause you were gonna be all over the floor. Arms pumpin’, legs kickin’, ponytails swingin’.
Mary J. Blige was not a natural dancer, but thanks to Lez, early Mary is synonymous with getting it in. “The “You Remind Me” video? Lez. I’ve never had anyone to work me that hard before,” Blige has said of Sager, “but it was all for the good because… I mean, I was a dancer in that video.”
Lez was an Uptown Records favorite. Mary J, Heavy D, Jeff Redd, Aaron Hall…she was all up and through the label.
If you were paying attention, she was easy to spot in other joints, too.
In the back half of the decade, Lez stepped up from the background to the forefront as a host for BET’s Rap City and then became an on-air radio and TV personality/producer.
Rosie Perez and The Fly Girls
In Living Color was one of only three shows I can think of – along with Soul Train and Solid Gold - that made the dancers the center of the brand. It was unique to the other two because In Living Color wasn’t even a music-centered show.
Keenan Ivory Wayans brought former Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez on board off the heels of her appearance in Do the Right Thing to be the choreographer and ad-hoc music supervisor, a role she filled for four of the show’s five seasons. She choreographed eight routines a week, picked the music, and booked the musical acts.
A "fly girl” was once the ultimate compliment you could pay a New York chick. It meant she was gorgeous, hair was poppin’, accessories were poppin’, moves were poppin’, and she seemed completely unattainable. The Fly Girls embodied all of that. They captured an era in style and dance.
The dance troupe also served as a launch-pad for multiple careers – as did the show itself. Original Fly Girl Carrie Anne Inaba is now best-known as a judge on Dancing With the Stars. Eventually known as “BoomKack,” Laurieanne Gibson joined the troupe for the final season of the show. Jennifer Lopez joined in season three and is the biggest success story of the crew. She allegedly proclaimed her star power from day one, insisting on special attention from Rosie and others. “All of the girls were coming into my office complaining how she was manipulating wardrobe, makeup, and me, all to her advantage,” Perez wrote in her 2014 autobiography, Tales for an Unpredictable Life.
J. Lo and fellow Fly Girl Jossie Harris (who was also in the earlier Mary J. Blige videos) left the show and joined Janet Jackson for her phenomenal janet. album cycle and tour – but then Jennifer quit after the “That’s the Way Love Goes” video to pursue her own career.
Another side note: It’s always been interesting to me that Janet and Jennifer basically don’t talk about each other.
janet. was the first album where Jackson highlighted her dancers. Make note of one of Janet’s other dancers, Tish. She’s going to come up again in a bit.
Fatima Robinson was planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps and open a hair salon in Carson, California when she started getting recruited from the club scene to dance in and eventually choreograph music videos. She wasn’t calling herself a choreographer, she was just making up routines. Then she bumped into Rosie Perez one night in a club bathroom, and Rosie encouraged her to secure the bag. “(She) said, ‘Fatima, you have to charge money, and you have to call yourself a choreographer.’”
Her first major shot as an official “choreographer” was a gig even seasoned pros would have killed for: John Singleton was directing Michael Jackson’s short film/video for “Remember the Time,” and tapped her for choreography. A then 20-year-old Fatima didn’t think she was up to it. Singleton told her, “Michael Jackson needs to learn some new moves, and you’re gonna be the one to teach him. So you gotta man up and do it.”
The result was one of the most legendary dance breaks in new jack swing. The clip also prominently featured the other sought-after dancers of the moment, like Lez, Jossie and Tish Oliver, who sometimes worked as Fatima’s choreography partner.
“Remember the Time” put Fatima in demand as a choreographer. She and Tish were on board for Bobby Brown’s follow-up album to Don’t Be Cruel, and choreographed “Get Away” and “Humpin’ Around,” plus the Bobby Tour. (Peep Lez and Jossie in the videos as well.) When BET brought Bobby’s story to screen last year, Fatima was on deck to make sure the moves were right.
Even though Fatima’s not classically trained, her moves always have a technical element. Precise hits and points.
The video for Brandy’s “Baby” earned Fatima her first MTV VMA nomination for Best Choreography. She was then nominated in 1997 for the tango scene at the end of Dr. Dre’s “Been There, Done That.” And then again in 1998 for Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” With the exception of two years, Fatima was nominated for the VMA category every year between 1995 and 2004.
I really, really, really cannot explain to you how everything stopped – in a pre-digital era – when Fatima, Hype Williams, and Busta took Coming to America and made it hip-hop. It’s still brilliant, 20 years later.
She continued to show more creativity and innovation with each new project and was sought after when artists wanted something fresh and different. Besides “Remember the Time,” Fatima’s probably best known for helping Aaliyah craft her iconic dance style...
And choreographing Baby Girl’s last video.
Fatima began directing videos herself, working on movies starting with The Players Club, and even showed up in a Gap campaign. In time, Fatima was bigger than just a choreographer – she became a personality.
Years after the first encounter with Rosie Perez, Fatima met her in yet another bathroom. "She said, 'Hey, come here,'” Rosie told Elle magazine in 2014, “And I'm thinking, 'Oh god, is this going to be a ghetto fight?' And she said, 'Girl, I get paid.' God bless America two times!' I said. We hugged each other and became friends."
There wasn’t no hateration or holleration in the dancerie.
There are more names that deserve recognition, especially the second wave of dancers/choreographers that emerged in the late ‘90s and the ‘00s, like Laurieanne Gibson, frequent Missy Elliott collaborator Hi-Hat (Nadine Ruffin), and Ciara’s early go-to Jamaica Craft. Even now, after cinematic videos and fetching vixens have become part of the tales old heads spin about — the days of bottles and label budgets and the years of mandatory backup dancers are long gone —some of these women are still on the scene.
The next time you’re reliving the days of your free and easy youth, busting choreography from your favorite ‘90s music video, say a little thank you to the young women (most of them started in their late teens and early 20s) who made those moments happen. Make sure you stretch first, though.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.